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The Chicken Story
A CENTURY AGO you’d eat steak and lobster when you couldn’t afford chicken. Today it can cost less than the potatoes you serve with. What happened in the years between was an extraordinary marriage of technology and the market.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Both the local banker and the feed companies were very skeptical at first, and the banker made a point of sending someone out to see that the chicks were really where Jewell said they were. But the system turned out to be profitable for all concerned, as it lowered the final price to the consumer and thus further increased demand.
Jewell, a classic entrepreneur, began to expand his business both horizontally, by making deals with more and more farmers, and vertically, by starting his own hatchery and processing plant. Traditionally, chickens had been sold to city wholesalers either still alive or what was termed “New York dressed”— that is, with the feathers removed but the head, feet, and innards intact. By processing the chickens at a plant and selling them ready to cook, Jewell not only reduced freight costs and spoilage; he obtained a supply of by-products that found a ready market and so increased his profits.
Chicken feet are exported in large numbers from this country to east Asia, where they are considered a delicacy. Ground-up feathers—supplying high-quality protein—are now an ingredient in animal feeds. Other bits and pieces end up in pet foods.
In 1954 J. D. Jewell, Inc., became a fully integrated poultry company when it completed its own feed mill. Other poultry companies were integrating too, and as they increased in size and expanded their markets, competition among them increased as well, with the usual result of increased efficiency, innovation, and ever lower prices. Between 1947 and 1960 broiler production in the southeastern states increased by fully 365 percent. During the same period, production per man-hour increased by 343 percent. To put it another way, while production more than quadrupled, the man-hours needed to handle that production increased by only 6 percent.
Naturally, the least-efficient producers were behind this movement, and it was spearheaded in Washington by Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who called for a “nationwide, producer-controlled marketing program.” Translated from politicalese, this meant a cartel.
The Eisenhower administration was unsympathetic. But when John F. Kennedy became President in January 1961, the movement to organize the broiler industry took on fresh drive. The new Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, organized the National Broiler Stabilization Advisory Committee, made up of a wide variety of industry executives.
No clear consensus was ever reached by the committee, however. It voted nineteen to sixteen in favor of giving the Secretary of Agriculture authority to regulate the supply of hatching eggs and thus the number of chickens available for market a few months later. But of the sixteen dissenters, eight had voted against it because they wanted no regulation at all. These latter feared that, no matter how lightly the hand of government touched the industry at first, its grip would only tighten in the long run, with disastrous consequences. As one opponent explained, with country eloquence, “You can boil a frog if you put him in cold water and heat it gradually.”
Beginning in the late 1960s Frank Perdue used clever television commercials to turn chicken, once the most generic of products, into a brand name and himself into a celebrity. At the same time, Don Tyson began to make a small Arkansas poultry company started by his father into a worldwide powerhouse that today sells five million chickens a day—almost two billion a year.
As recently as 1960, if a shopper wanted chicken, he or she bought a chicken, often one that was still New York dressed. Today the shopper can buy a whole chicken, a cut-up chicken, chicken wings, legs, thighs, and breasts (boned or unboned), with or without skin. The shopper can buy chicken ready-cooked (nicely browned and resting in its own plastic carapace) or ready to cook, seasonings included. And, increasingly, Americans are eating chicken either away from home or in its ready-to-eat form.