U.S. Chicken Industry History

The chicken industry in the United States is one of the most successful sectors in agriculture. In a little over 50 years, the U.S. broiler industry has evolved from fragmented, locally oriented businesses into a highly efficient, vertically integrated, progressive success story increasingly supplying customers nationwide and around the globe. The modern chicken industry produces nutritious, wholesome, high quality products that became more affordable year after year. Much of the success of the industry can be attributed to a more efficient structural organization, improved production and processing technologies, and a continuing responsiveness to consumer demands. Outlined here are the important milestones that helped make the chicken industry the success it is today.

1800s – early-1900s

Early poultry production consisted of many households having backyard flocks of dual-purpose chickens. These chickens supplied eggs and an occasional chicken for Sunday or holiday dinner. By the turn of the century, a few entrepreneurs began selling young chickens during the summer for meat as a sideline activity on their family farms. Year-round production was limited because vitamin D had not yet been discovered and the importance of the photoperiod (cycle of sunlight and darkness) and its impact on production was not understood.

1920s-1930s

Chicken meat production, previously a subsidiary of the egg industry, began with the development of the broiler – a chicken raised specifically for its meat. Broiler production was initiated in locations such as the Delmarva Peninsula, Georgia, Arkansas, and New England. Factors in the geographic expansion of the industry were favorable weather conditions, adequate land and water, and access to supplies of corn and soybeans, which are the major components of poultry feed.

Mrs. Wilmer Steele of Sussex County, Delaware, is often cited as the pioneer of the commercial broiler industry. In 1923, she raised a flock of 500 chicks intended to be sold for meat. Her little business was so profitable that, by 1926, Mrs. Steele was able to build a broiler house with a capacity of 10,000 birds.

1940s – 1960s

Feed mills, hatcheries, farms, and processors were all separate entities in the early industry. The hatcheries were called upon by their customers to become more involved in coordinating the production, processing, and marketing of broilers with their own operations. To a certain extent, hatcheries played this role in order to their protect market share and production. Later, feed mills extended credit to farmers to purchase feed to produce the live chickens. The feed mills would lend farmers the money needed to buy the chicks from the hatcheries, with the debt being secured by a note on the flock. When the flock was market-ready, the farmer sold it to a processor and paid back the feed mill. Eventually entrepreneurs consolidated feed mill, hatchery and processing operations, resulting in the beginnings of the integrated industry.

Chickens were typically sold “New York dressed,” with only the blood and feathers removed. In 1942, an Illinois plant was the first to win government approval of “on-line” evisceration. Evisceration and packing ready-to-cook whole carcasses in ice in wooden crates would eventually become the norm.

By 1949, USDA launched a voluntary program of grading to assure consumers of high quality.

The commercial broiler industry began its economic boom. By 1952, specially bred meat chickens (“broilers”) surpassed farm chickens as the number one source of chicken meat in the United States.

The contract broiler relationship developed in response to a number of farmers losing their farms due to the risks involved in financing chicks and feed.

“Vertical integration” took hold, with a single company involved in every stage of production, processing and marketing. Entrepreneurs started to combine and coordinate different broiler production stages in the 1940s. By the mid-1960s, ninety percent of broilers produced came from integrated operations. Vertical integration would allow the broiler industry to take advantage of new pharmaceutical, biological and production technologies to become more efficient, responsive, and profitable.

In 1954, the National Broiler Council (which on January 1, 1999 became the National Chicken Council) was organized to stimulate consumer demand. NBC would eventually locate in Washington, DC, to handle government relations and public affairs for the broiler industry. Jesse Jewell was the first president (chairman) of the organization.

Federal inspection of broilers became mandatory in 1959. Since 1926, many processing plants had voluntarily participated in a USDA inspection program for wholesomeness.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, major companies used television and print media to market chickens under brand names. Today, 95 percent of broilers sold at retail grocery stores carry a brand name. This is sometimes the processor’s brand and sometimes a store brand; store brands are produced by major processors, a type of production called “private label.” Repeat business is thus dependent on a consistent, reliable level of quality in the branded product.

Since 1970s

By the mid-1970s, the industry had evolved into its modern state with the implementation of nutritional discoveries, disease eradication programs, genetic improvements through traditional breeding, and mechanization and automation technologies.

By the early 1980s, consumers preferred cut-up and further-processed chickens to the traditional whole bird.

Chicken consumption surpassed beef consumption in the United States in 1992. Chicken had already surpassed pork consumption in 1985.

In 1991, the U.S. government helped sponsor the first shipments of frozen poultry leg quarters to the Soviet Union. Russian consumers called them “Bush legs” in honor of the first President George Bush. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Russian market opened to international commerce and U.S. poultry exports skyrocketed. By 2001, chicken exports to Russia and other foreign markets accounted for approximately 20 percent of total American production, worth more than $2 billion.

On January 26, 1998, USDA required the HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) process control system program in all large poultry slaughter establishments. This program is a modern approach to quality control that seeks to identify and control the points in processing at which chemical, physical and microbiological hazards can be controlled, reduced, or eliminated. Pathogen reduction is a key component of USDA’s initiatives.

Driven by industry advancements, the broiler produced today is meatier, more affordable to the consumer, and more wholesome than the broiler of fifty years ago — or even 15 years ago. The industry employs the most advanced scientific technology available and is constantly seeking new methods to ensure wholesomeness and enhance quality for the consumer.

On January 1, 1999, the National Broiler Council changed its name to the National Chicken Council to better reflect the industry that the organization represents.

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