Poultry, pronounced (pōl′trē), is a name given to domesticated birds kept by humans for the eggs they produce, their meat or feathers. These birds are most typically members of the superorder Galloanserae (fowl), especially the order Galliformes (which includes chickens, quails and turkeys) and the family Anatidae (in order Anseriformes), commonly known as "waterfowl" (e.g. domestic ducks and domestic geese). Poultry also includes other birds which are killed for their meat, such as pigeons or doves . Poultry comes from the French/Norman word poule, itself derived from the Latin word pullus, which means small animal.
The domestication of poultry took place several thousand years ago. This may have originally been as a result of people hatching and rearing young birds from eggs collected from the wild, but later involved keeping the birds permanently in captivity. Selective breeding for fast growth, egg-laying ability, conformation, plumage and docility took place over the centuries, and modern breeds often look very different from their wild ancestors. Although some birds are still kept in small flocks in extensive systems, most birds available in the market today are reared in intensive commercial enterprises. Poultry is the second most widely eaten type of meat globally and, along with eggs, provides nutritionally beneficial food containing high-quality protein accompanied by a low proportion of fat. All poultry meat should be properly handled and sufficiently cooked in order to reduce the risk of food poisoning. There is some concern that poultry farmers who come in intimate contact with their birds could be exposed to avian influenza and that new strains of the disease could pose risks of pandemics.
"Poultry" can be defined as domestic fowls, including chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks, raised for the production of meat or eggs. The Encyclopædia Britannica lists the same bird groups but also includes guinea fowl and squabs (young pigeons), and quails are also generally considered to be poultry. In his 1848 classic book on poultry, Ornamental and Domestic Poultry: Their History, and Management, Edmund Dixon included chapters on the pea fowl, guinea fowl, mute swan, turkey, various types of geese, the muscovy duck, other ducks and all types of chickens including bantams.
Poultry is a term used for any kind of domesticated bird or any bird, captive-raised for meat, eggs, feathers or other products. Traditionally the word has mostly been used to refer to landfowl or gamefowl (Galliformes) and waterfowl (Anseriformes). However, ostriches and emus are sometimes farmed or ranched, but are neither gamefowl nor waterfowl. In colloquial speech, however, the term "fowl" is often used near-synonymously with the "domesticated chicken" (Gallus gallus), or with "poultry" or even "bird", and many languages do not distinguish between "poultry" and "fowl". Both words are also used for the flesh of these birds.
The word "poultry" comes from the Middle English "pultrie", from Old French pouletrie, from pouletier, poultry dealer, from poulet, pullet. The word "pullet" itself comes from Middle English pulet, from Old French polet, both from Latin pullus, a young fowl, young animal or chicken. The word "fowl" is of Germanic origin (cf. Old English Fugol, German Vogel, Danish Fugl).
Today's domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is mainly descended from the wild Red Junglefowl of Asia, with some additional input from the Grey Junglefowl. Domestication took place at least five thousand years ago in Asia and since then chickens have spread around the world with the domestic fowl being a very productive source of both eggs and meat. Originally, birds were only killed after their egg-laying life terminated, by which time they might be scrawny and tough. By about 1800, poultry were being kept on a larger scale, and modern high output poultry farms were present in the United Kingdom from around 1920 and in the United States soon after the second world war. By the mid-20th century, the meat producing industry was of greater importance than the egg-laying industry. Poultry breeding has produced breeds and strains to fulfil different needs; light-framed, egg-laying birds that can produce 300 eggs a year; fast-growing, fleshy birds destined for consumption at a young age, and utility birds which produce both an acceptable number of eggs as well as providing a well-filled carcase. Male birds are unwanted in the egg-laying industry and can often be identified at hatching and culled. In meat breeds, these birds are usually castrated (often chemically).
Cockfighting is said to be the world's oldest spectator sport and may have originated in Persia 6,000 years ago. Two mature males (cocks or roosters) are set to fight each other, and will do so with great vigour until one is critically injured or killed. Breeds such as the Aseel were developed in the Indian sub-continent for their aggressive behaviour. The sport formed part of the culture of the ancient Indians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, and large sums were won or lost depending on the outcome of an encounter. Cock-fighting has been banned in many countries during the last century on the grounds of cruelty to animals.
A bantam is a small variety of domestic chicken, either a miniature version of a member of a standard breed, or a "true bantam" with no larger counterpart. The name derives from the town of Bantam in Java where European sailors bought the local small chickens for their shipboard supplies. Bantams may be a quarter to a third of the size of standard birds and lay similarly small eggs. They are kept by small-holders and hobbyists for egg production, for use as broody hens, for ornamental purposes and showing.
Clay models of ducks found in China dating back to 4000 BC may indicate that the domestication of ducks took place there during the Yangshao culture. Even if this is not the case, domestication of the duck took place in the Far East at least 1500 years earlier than in the West. Lucius Columella, writing in the first century BC, advised those who sought to rear ducks to collect wildfowl eggs and put them under a broody hen, because when raised in this way, the ducks "lay aside their wild nature and without hesitation breed when shut up in the bird pen". Despite this, ducks did not appear in agricultural texts in Western Europe until about 810 AD when they begin to be mentioned alongside geese, chickens and peafowl as being used for rental payments made by tenants to landowners.
It is widely agreed that the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is the ancestor of all breeds of domestic duck (with the exception of the Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata), which is not closely related to other ducks). Ducks are farmed mainly for their meat, eggs and down. In the Western world, they are not as popular as the chicken, because chickens have larger quantities of white, lean meat and are easier to keep intensively, making the price of chicken meat lower. While popular in haute cuisine, duck appears less frequently in the mass-market food industry. However, things are reversed in the East and ducks are more popular there than chickens. The ducks are mostly still herded in the traditional way and are selected for their ability to find sufficient food in harvested rice fields and other wet environments.
The Greylag Goose (Anser anser) was domesticated by the Egyptians at least three thousand years ago and a different wild species, the Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides), was domesticated in Siberia about a thousand years later and is known as a Chinese goose. The two hybridise with each other and the large knob at the base of the beak, a noticeable feature of the Chinese goose, is present to a varying extent in these hybrids. The hybrids are fertile and have resulted in several of the modern breeds. Despite their early domestication, geese have never gained the commercial importance of chickens and ducks.
Domestic geese are much larger than their wild counterparts and tend to have thick necks, an upright posture and large bodies with broad rear ends. The Greylag-derived birds are large and fleshy and used for meat while the Chinese geese have smaller frames and are mainly used for egg production. Both can range over large areas to forage on grass and weeds. They are very gregarious and have good memories and can be allowed to roam widely in the knowledge that they will return home by dusk. The Chinese goose is more aggressive and noisy than other geese and can used as a guard animal to warn of intruders. The fine down of both is valued for use in pillows and padded garments.
The modern domesticated turkey is descended from one of six subspecies of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) found in the present Mexican states of Jalisco, Guerrero and Veracruz Pre-Aztec tribes in south-central Mexico first domesticated the bird around 800 BC, and Pueblo Indians inhabiting the Colorado Plateau in the United States did likewise around 200 BC. They used the feathers for robes and blankets and for ceremonial purposes and it was more than a thousand years later before they became an important food source. The first Europeans to encounter the bird misidentified it as a guineafowl, a bird that was known as a "turkey fowl" at that time because it had been introduced into Europe via Turkey.
Turkeys are social birds and are mostly reared indoors under controlled conditions. Often these large buildings are purpose built, well ventilated and provided with low level lighting systems which can be switched on for nearly twenty-four hours a day to encourage the birds to feed often and grow rapidly. Females are ready for slaughter at about fifteen weeks and males at about nineteen. Mature birds may be twice as heavy as their wild counterparts. Many different breeds have been developed but the majority of commercial birds are white as this improves the appearance of the dressed carcass, the pin feathers being less visible. Turkeys were at one time mainly consumed on special occasions such as Christmas (10 million birds in the United Kingdom) or Thanksgiving (60 million birds in the United States). However they are increasingly becoming part of the everyday diet in many parts of the world. 
Being a largely ground-dwelling, gregarious bird, domestication of the quail was not difficult, although many of its wild instincts are retained in captivity. It was known to the Egyptians long before the arrival of chickens and was depicted in hieroglyphs from 2575 BC. It migrated across Egypt in vast flocks and the birds could sometimes be picked up off the ground by hand. These were the Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix), but modern domesticated flocks are mostly of Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) which was probably domesticated as early as the 11th century AD in Japan. They were originally kept as songbirds, and it is thought that they were regularly used in song contests.
In the early twentieth century, Japanese breeders began to selectively breed for increased egg production. By 1940, the quail egg industry was flourishing but the events of World War II led to the complete loss of quail lines bred for their song type, as well as almost all of those bred for egg production. After the war, the few surviving domesticated quail were used to rebuild the industry, and all current commercial and laboratory lines are considered to have originated from this population. Modern birds can lay upward of three hundred eggs a year and countries such as Japan, India, China, Italy, Russia and the United States have established commercial Japanese quail farming industries. Japanese quails are also used in bio-medical research in fields such as genetics, embryology, nutrition, physiology, pathology and toxicity studies.
Worldwide, more chickens are kept than any other type of poultry, with over fifty billion birds being raised each year as a source of meat and eggs. Traditionally such birds would have been kept extensively in small flocks, foraging during the day and housed at night. This is still the case in developing countries where it is often the women who make important contributions to family livelihoods through keeping poultry. However, rising world populations and urbanization have led to the bulk of production being in larger, more intensive specialist units. These are often situated close to where the food is grown or near to where the meat is needed, and result in cheap, safe food being made available for urban communities. Profitability of production depends very much on the price of feed, which has been rising. High feed costs could limit further development of poultry production.
Free range is a method of husbandry where the birds can roam freely outdoors for at least part of the day. Often this is in large enclosures but the birds have access to natural conditions and can exhibit their normal behaviours. A more intensive system is yarding in which the birds have access to a fenced yard and poultry house at a higher stocking rate. Poultry can also be kept in a barn system, with no access to the open air but with the ability to move around freely inside the building. The most intensive system for egg-laying chickens is battery cages, often set in multiple tiers. In these, several birds share a small cage which restricts their ability to move around and behave in a normal manner. The eggs are laid on the floor of the cage and roll into troughs outside for ease of collection. Battery cages for hens have been illegal in the EEC since January 1, 2012.
Chickens raised intensively for their meat are known as "broilers". Breeds have been developed that can grow to an acceptable carcass size (2 kg (4.4 lb)) in six weeks or less. Broilers grow so fast that their legs cannot always support their weight and their hearts and respiratory systems may not be able to supply enough oxygen to their developing muscles. Mortality rates at 1% are much higher than for less-intensively reared laying birds which take eighteen weeks to reach similar weights. Processing the birds is done automatically with conveyor-belt efficiency. They are hung by their feet, stunned, killed, bled, scalded, plucked, have their heads and feet removed, eviscerated, washed, chilled, drained, weighed and packed, all within the course of little over two hours.
Both intensive and free-range farming have animal welfare concerns. In intensive systems, cannibalism, feather pecking and vent pecking can be common with some farmers using beak trimming as a preventative measure. Diseases can also be common and spread rapidly through the flock. In extensive systems the birds are exposed to adverse weather conditions and are vulnerable to predators. Barn systems have been found to have the worst bird welfare. In South-East Asia, a lack of disease control in free range farming has been associated with outbreaks of Avian influenza.
In many countries, national and regional poultry shows are held where enthusiasts exhibit their birds which are judged on certain phenotypical breed traits as specified by their respective breed standards. The idea of poultry exhibition may have originated after cock-fighting was made illegal, as a way of maintaining a competitive element in poultry husbandry. Breed standards were drawn up for egg-laying, meat and for purely ornamental birds, aiming for uniformity. Sometimes poultry shows are part of general livestock shows and sometimes they are separate events such as the annual "National Championship Show" in the United Kingdom organised by the Poultry Club of Great Britain. In the United States the largest show was the International Poultry Expo organised by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. In 2013, this was amalgamated with the International Feed Expo and the International Meat Expo to give the world's largest livestock trade fair, the International Production & Processing Expo. IPPE attracts exhibitors from around the world and includes an International Poultry Scientific Forum.
Poultry as food
Poultry is the second most widely eaten type of meat in the world, accounting for about 30% of total meat production worldwide compared to pork at 38%. Global broiler meat production rose to 84.6 million tonnes in 2013. The largest producers were the United States (20%), China (16.6%), Brazil (15.1%) and the European Union (11.3%). There are two distinct models of production; the European Union supply chain model seeks to supply products which can be traced back to the farm of origin. This model faces the increasing costs of implementing additional food safety requirements, welfare issues and environmental regulations. In contrast, the United States model turns the product into a commodity.
Global egg production was expected to reach 65.5 million tonnes in 2013, surpassing all previous years. Between 2000 and 2010, egg production was growing globally at around 2% per year, but since then growth has slowed down to nearer 1%.
China produces about 1.7 billion domestic ducks annually, some 73% of the world production. Other notable producing countries in the Far East include Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea (12%). France (3.5%) is the largest producer in the West, followed by other EEC nations (3%) and North America (1.7%).
Cuts of poultry
Poultry is available fresh or frozen, as whole birds or as joints, with bone-in or de-boned, seasoned in various ways, raw or ready cooked. The meatiest parts of a bird are the flight muscles on its chest, called "breast" meat, and the walking muscles on the legs, called the "thigh" and "drumstick". The wings are also eaten, usually (in the United States) without separating them into two pieces, as in Buffalo wings; the first and second segment of the wings are referred to as the "drumette" (meatier) and "wingette" (or "flat") when these need to be distinguished. In Japan, the wing is frequently separated, and these parts are referred to as 手羽元 (teba-moto "wing base") and 手羽先 (teba-saki "wing tip").
Dark meat, which avian myologists refer to as "red muscle," is used for sustained activity—chiefly walking, in the case of a chicken. The dark colour comes from the protein myoglobin, which plays a key role in oxygen uptake within cells. White muscle, in contrast, is suitable only for short, ineffectual bursts of activity such as, for chickens, flying. Thus the chicken's leg and thigh meat are dark while its breast meat (which makes up the primary flight muscles) is white. Other birds with breast muscle more suitable for sustained flight, such as ducks and geese, have red muscle (and therefore dark meat) throughout. Some cuts of poultry expose the muscle fibrils at an angle which causes iridescent colours to appear. These colours are common in meat cuts and are caused by structural coloration.
Health and disease (humans)
Poultry meat and eggs provide nutritionally beneficial food containing protein of high quality. This is accompanied by low levels of fat which have a favourable mix of fatty acids. Chicken meat contains about two to three times as much polyunsaturated fat as most types of red meat when measured by weight. However, for boneless, skinless chicken breast, the amount is much lower. A 100g serving of baked chicken breast contains 4 grams of fat and 31 grams of protein, compared to 10 grams of fat and 27 grams of protein for the same portion of broiled, lean skirt steak.
A 2011 study by the Translational Genomics Research Institute showed that 47% of the meat and poultry sold in United States grocery stores was contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, and 52% of the bacteria concerned showed resistance to at least three groups of antibiotics. Thorough cooking of the product would kill these bacteria, but there is still a risk of cross-contamination from improper handling of the raw product. There is also some risk to consumers of poultry meat and eggs of infections caused by bacterial infections such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. Poultry products may become contaminated by these bacteria during handling, processing, marketing or storage resulting in food poisoning in humans if the product is improperly cooked or handled.
In general, avian influenza is a disease of birds caused by bird-specific influenza A virus that is not normally transferred to people; however, people in contact with live poultry are at the greatest risk of becoming infected with the virus and this is of particular concern in areas such as southeastern Asia where the disease is endemic in the wild bird population and domestic poultry can become infected. It is possible that the virus could mutate to become highly virulent and infectious in humans and cause an influenza pandemic.
Bacteria can be grown in the laboratory on nutrient culture medium, but viruses need living cells in which to replicate. It has been found that many vaccines to infectious diseases can be grown in fertilised chicken eggs. Millions of eggs are used each year to generate the annual flu vaccine requirements, a complex process that takes about six months after the decision is made as to what strains of virus to include in the new vaccine. A problem with using eggs for this purpose is that people with egg allergies are unable to be immunised, but this disadvantage may be overcome as new techniques for cell-based rather than egg-based culture become available. Cell-based culture will also be useful in a pandemic when it may be difficult to acquire a sufficiently large quantity of suitable sterile, fertilised eggs.
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- Information on Poultry Diseases
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- Poultry.ie - Irish Poultry Community and Information Source
- Agritrade - Information on poultry trade for ACP countries