6 Facts About Chicken That Will Make You Seriously Rethink Your Dinner

Nuggets, strips, filet, soup, stock, casserole, cordon bleu, a la king—chicken is the meat of infinite possibilities, and Americans eat 37 billion pounds of the versatile fowl every year. 

It wasn’t always this way: Chicken was only recently crowned the unofficial king of animal proteins. In the last 50 years, the country’s per capita chicken consumption has almost tripled, thanks in part to the anti–saturated fat craze of the 1980s, which scared consumers away from red meat. Technological advances in factory farms, combined with a cheap price tag for wholesale buyers in the restaurant industry, only increased chicken’s stranglehold on the market.

Now the industry makes $50 billion every year, has increased its lobbying budget tenfold since 2006, and tends toward monopolistic practices, making it tougher to separate fact from the propagandized fiction thrown at you via Tyson Any’tizers commercials.

These six chicken stats that have flown under the radar should help shed some light. 


image: Lungkit/Shutterstock

The process is called “chick culling,” but that’s a much too cutesy name for the practice’s brutal reality. Farms now use separate breeds for egg-producing chickens and broiler chickens, so almost every male laying chicken that’s born is killed immediately. The recommended humane method is to asphyxiate with carbon dioxide, but the American Veterinary Medical Association recently added putting non-anesthetized chicks through a grinder as an acceptable way to kill the newly hatched. 


image: serato/Shutterstock

According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta and published in the Journal of Poultry Science, chicken breast sizes have increased more than 80 percent since 1950, and hens have doubled in weight. Martin Zuidhof, one of the lead scientists, attributes the massive growth to a movement in the late 1940s to create more profitable meat chickens and not just sell them as a byproduct of the egg industry. The researchers were also clear that the increase in size was not because of artificially added hormones but from highly successful selective breeding. 

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image: Brandon Wang/Flickr

Statistics from the National Chicken Council show that 56 percent of all chicken goes to markets for retail, 25 percent goes to fast-food chains, and 19 percent goes to smaller restaurants. In 1970, fast food accounted for only about 14 percent of the market share. Chicken’s increasing popularity, especially among fast-food chains, is likely from skyrocketing beef prices. Because burgers were no longer bringing in the big bucks—at some point in 2013, McDonald’s was losing money on every McDouble—chains started to push the nuggets.

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image: hazelisles/Flickr

The Department of Agriculture only specifies that “free-range” birds are allowed access to the outdoors. But as Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “Since the food and water remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled into their habits,” there’s a good chance those chickens have never seen the light of day. The USDA doesn’t even make a legal distinction about the claim “cage-free.”


image: Vipavlenkoff/Shutterstock

According to The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, and Perdue Farms are responsible for half the chicken produced in the U.S. Tyson is known for revolutionizing the system of contract farming in which farmers raise chickens completely under the corporation’s guidelines, sourcing feed from its suppliers and using its veterinary support. Today Tyson has more than 6,000 contract farmers, and other companies have followed the model. The most famous contract farmer of late is Craig Watts, who has alerted the press to practices required by Perdue that he alleges are inhumane.


image: Apostolos Mastoris/Shutterstock

Russians ate a lot of chicken legs in 2009, when the country imported 1.6 billion pounds of dark meat from stateside producers. Why? Americans won’t eat it, so a large percentage of dark meat is exported. Chicken breast has always been the most popular cut in the U.S., and with buffalo-wing franchises exploding, the drumstick and thigh (pictured) end up being the neglected cut. Breast meat is so popular that when McDonald’s reformulated its Chicken McNuggets to exclude all dark meat, its sales increased 35 percent immediately. 

This article was originally published on TakePart. Reprinted with permission.

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