Whilst doing some research recently for an upcoming poultry book I’m involved in writing I was reminded about the “The Chicken-of-tomorrow” contest. For those not familiar with this ‘contest’ you may well have just missed the biggest social, agricultural, food based event of the last 1000 years.
You don’t believe me? Watch the two video’s at the end of this post if you have the time and you may just find the 20 minutes you spend watching them somewhat thought provoking.
The film is an element of what was perhaps the most potent Public Relations exercise ever to have hit the world.
Let me explain.
The Post War Western world was suffering a significant shortage of meat, meat being seen then as an essential source of protein in our diets, however chickens at this time were invariably kept for egg laying (eggs being a cheap, accessible source of protein).
Chicken meat wasn’t as readily consumed in the early 20th century as it is now; it was a case of eating surplus cockerels or hens that had passed their laying best. Some table fowl existed but these were a luxury item, so invariably the chicken that reached the pot was either scrawny or a tough old bird meaning many urban households preferring instead to ignore chicken as an option.
During the war eggs and chicken meat came under more scrutiny as a source of essential rations. “A million eggs for a million soldiers” ran one headline in the US National Poultry Digest and demand for eggs and broilers grew. Consequently the humble farm chicken switched to chicken farming in less than a decade. It was however in 1946 when the major stakeholders converged and the shape of poultry, the poultry industry and the waistline of the world was to change forever through the birth of “The Chicken-of-Tomorrow” contest.
Agriculturists, scientists, breeders, farmers, and grocers all combine together in one very subtle but very deliberate PR exercise to not only promote poultry as an excellent source of protein but also to change attitudes toward the chicken. I won’t deny it, I do like a good conspiracy theory but I’m not going to build this in to one, in fact it could almost be said that it was ‘pioneering’ work that took place. The intent behind the contest was to produce ‘improved’ chickens, chickens that carried more meat, grew quickly and gave a more efficient yield in terms of feed conversion.
This could be frowned upon but ultimately it was a funded exercise to accelerate what any smallholder would be trying to do in their backyard. When the farmyard chicken became more focused upon as a source of food during the 19th century the objective was, and still is (outside of the poultry exhibition circuit) to produce good utility strains or breeds of chicken. The difference here was that through clever and careful publicity, coupled with prize funding and a foresight beyond what most of today’s corporations are capable of, the full range of stakeholders became engaged in process that went on to change the world, but far more imperceptibly than an iphone or even the internet.
The ‘contests’ ran in three year cycles from 1946 to 1961 and went through regional heats on to national competitions. This wasn’t however a case of playing one breed off against another, it was about hybridising existing breeds and then submitted 400 eggs to a fully controlled hatchery in each region where the birds would be hatched, monitored and slaughtered ( where upon the results would be declared in terms of the ‘best’ chicken). Hundreds of thousands of chickens, in fact it’s probably safe to say millions of chickens, were a part of this process. The objective was understandable and quite possibly well intentioned; however it was how it evolved that becomes the (leg) bone of contention.
It was only a matter of time before the chicken ceased to be livestock and became a crop. Maximising yield became the governing factor, and quite possible because the PR promoting chicken meat was hugely successful, then the drive to produce quick growing eating machines that converted cereal feed into protein rich meat flicked a switch that spelt out a welfare disaster for the animal.
A meat bird now can be table ready in under 8 weeks, it can be bought for £4 (or 2 for a fiver in some supermarkets) and it will weigh around 4lb in weight.
Back in the 70’s the drumsticks or leg bones would be invariably broken. This may have been down to the post slaughter handling but if you looked closely you would have seen it was a pre mortem injury, the bird had become too heavy to support its weight.
I started this out with a bold statement saying this contest changed “the shape of poultry, the poultry industry and the waistline of the world”. The first two points hopefully now speak for themselves but what of the final point, waistline?
A simple wander through a high street or supermarket will highlight this. What are chicken nuggets? When did buffalo wings become the meal of the Super Bowl? Popcorn chicken? Chicken fingers? Chicken in hotdogs? The list could go on, there’s no denying that ‘chicken’, once either a scrawny addition to the table or a luxury most couldn’t afford, now appears to be consumed on a titanic scale and all this has come about in the last 50 years – a global consumption acceleration matched by no other meat product on the planet.
And so to the question, has the “Chicken-of-tomorrow” become yesterday? Animal welfare is certainly an agenda item. In recent decades we once again see clever and careful publicity working but this time bringing welfare to the fore. Slowly consumers are becoming more aware of food production, and slowly attitudes are changing. This year 2012 saw the banning of battery cage egg production systems, a small but positive step that can’t help but make you think the tide might be changing. Pioneering as the poultry contest initiated in the 1940’s might have been, the time has come for another rethink. Poultry are one of the few creatures we openly consume before they are born and after they are dead. Spend time around poultry and they seem quite content with this lot, albeit it having little choice but what does the future hold for yesterday’s chicken of tomorrow?