Poultry farming in the United States

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Battery chickens

Poultry farming is a part of the United States's agricultural economy.


"The best in the world" White Plymouth Rocks, 1910

In the United States, chickens were raised primarily on family farms or in some cases, in poultry colonies, such as Judge Emery's Poultry Colony[1] until about 1960. Originally, the primary value in poultry keeping was eggs, and meat was considered a byproduct of egg production.[2] A United States Department of the Interior census in 1840 found American farmers had a total combined poultry flock valued at approximately $12 million ($307 million in today's dollars).[3]

Following the Treaty of Wanghia between the US and China in 1844, oriental poultry breeds were imported to New England, and Rhode Island became the nation's first major poultry center.[3] Cross-breeding between English and Asian birds created new breeds still common today, like the Barred Plymouth Rock. Chickens remained primarily to provide eggs, mostly to the farmer (subsistence agriculture), with commercialization still largely unexplored. Farm flocks tended to be small because the hens largely fed themselves through foraging, with some supplementation of grain, scraps, and waste products from other farm ventures. Such feedstuffs were in limited supply, especially in the winter, and this tended to regulate the size of the farm flocks. Soon after poultry keeping gained the attention of agricultural researchers (around 1896), improvements in nutrition and management made poultry keeping more profitable and businesslike. Poultry shows spread interest and understanding, with 88% of all farmers having chickens by 1910.[4]

Barred Plymouth Rock hen, No. 31S. laid 237 eggs in first year at the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station (1903)

Eggs were sold into urban markets, where residents did not have chickens to provide eggs for themselves.[5] Except in hot weather, eggs can be shipped and stored without refrigeration for some time before going bad; this was important in the days before widespread refrigeration. However, poultry meat supply was less than the demand, and poultry was expensive. Prior to about 1910, chicken was served primarily on special occasions or Sunday dinner. Poultry was shipped live or killed, plucked, and packed on ice (but not eviscerated). The "whole, ready-to-cook broiler" was not popular until the 1950s, when end-to-end refrigeration and sanitary practices gave consumers more confidence. Before this, poultry were often cleaned by the neighborhood butcher, though cleaning poultry at home was a commonplace kitchen skill.

Two kinds of poultry were generally offered: broilers or "spring chickens," young male chickens, a byproduct of the egg industry, which were sold when still young and tender (generally under 3 pounds live weight); and "fowls" or "stewing hens," also a byproduct of the egg industry, which were old hens past their prime for laying.[6] This is no longer practiced; modern meat chickens are a different breed. Egg-type chicken carcasses no longer appear in stores.

The major milestone in 20th century poultry production was the discovery of Vitamin D (named in 1922),[7] which made it possible to keep chickens in confinement year-round. Before this, chickens did not thrive during the winter due to lack of sunlight, and egg production, incubation, and meat production in the off-season were all very difficult, making poultry a seasonal and expensive proposition. Year-round production lowered costs, especially for broilers. Artificial daylight supplementation also started being used.

At the same time, egg production was increased by scientific breeding. After a few false starts, such as the Maine Experiment Station's failure at improving egg production,[8] success was shown by Professor James Dryden at the Oregon Experiment Station.[9]

Improvements in production and quality were accompanied by lower labor requirements. In the 1930s through the early 1950s, 1,500 hens was considered to be a full-time job for a farm family. In the late 1950s, egg prices had fallen so dramatically that farmers typically tripled the number of hens they kept, putting three hens into what had been a single-bird cage or converting their floor-confinement houses from a single deck of roosts to triple-decker roosts. Not long after this, prices fell still further and large numbers of egg farmers left the business. This marked the beginning of the transition from family farms to larger, vertically integrated operations.

This fall in profitability was accompanied by a general fall in prices to the consumer, allowing poultry and eggs to lose their status as luxury foods.

The vertical integration of the egg and poultry industries was a late development, occurring after all the major technological changes had been in place for years (including the development of modern broiler rearing techniques, the adoption of the Cornish Cross broiler, the use of laying cages, etc.).

By the late 1950s, poultry production had changed dramatically. Large farms and packing plants could grow birds by the tens of thousands, radically impacting labor practices alongside farming techniques.[10] Chickens could be sent to slaughterhouses for butchering and processing into prepackaged commercial products to be frozen or shipped fresh to markets or wholesalers. Meat-type chickens currently grow to market weight in six to seven weeks whereas only fifty years ago it took three times as long.[11] This is due to genetic selection and nutritional modifications and not the use of growth hormones, which are illegal for use in poultry in the US and many other countries. Once a meat consumed only occasionally, the common availability and lower cost has made chicken a common meat product within developed nations. Growing concerns over the cholesterol content of red meat in the 1980s and 1990s further resulted in increased consumption of chicken.

Current status[edit]

Today, eggs are produced on large egg ranches on which environmental parameters are controlled. Chickens are exposed to artificial light cycles to stimulate egg production year-round. In addition, it is a common practice to induce molting through manipulation of light and the amount of food they receive in order to further increase egg size and production.

On average, a chicken lays one egg a day for a number of days (a "clutch"), then does not lay for one or more days, then lays another clutch. Originally, the hen presumably laid one clutch, became broody, and incubated the eggs. Selective breeding over the centuries has produced hens that lay more eggs than they can hatch. Some of this progress was ancient, but most occurred after 1900. In 1900, average egg production was 83 eggs per hen per year. In 2000, it was well over 300.

In the United States, laying hens are butchered after their second egg laying season. In Europe, they are generally butchered after a single season. The laying period begins when the hen is about 18–20 weeks old (depending on breed and season). Males of the egg-type breeds have little commercial value at any age, and all those not used for breeding (roughly fifty percent of all egg-type chickens) are killed soon after hatching. Such "day-old chicks" are sometimes sold as food for captive and falconers birds of prey.[12] The old hens also have little commercial value. Thus, the main sources of poultry meat a hundred years ago (spring chickens and stewing hens) have both been entirely supplanted by meat-type broiler chickens.

Traditionally, chicken production was distributed across the entire agricultural sector. In the 20th century, it gradually moved closer to major cities to take advantage of lower shipping costs. This had the undesirable side effect of turning the chicken manure from a valuable fertilizer that could be used profitably on local farms to an unwanted byproduct. This trend may be reversing itself due to higher disposal costs on the one hand and higher fertilizer prices on the other, making farm regions attractive once more.[13]

From the farmer's point of view, eggs used to be practically the same as currency, with general stores buying eggs for a stated price per dozen. Egg production peaks in the early spring, when farm expenses are high and income is low. On many farms, the flock was the most important source of income, though this was often not appreciated by the farmers, since the money arrived in many small payments. Eggs were a farm operation where even small children could make a valuable contribution.[14]

In 2015, the national flock suffered due to the spread of bird flu, affecting birds in fourteen states, leading to layoffs.[15] A May 2015 report by the Associated Press reported that 10% of egg laying chickens were dead or dying due to bird flu.[16] Beginning in June 2015, rationing of eggs had begun, leading to increased egg prices.[17]

Production statistics[edit]


Between 2007 and 2010 a total of about 90 billion eggs were produced per year.[18][19]

Individual states[edit]

Production of individual states
Egg production by state, 2010[19]
Eggs produced (millions)
Eggs produced (millions)


In 2008, 9.08 billion chickens were slaughtered in the United States according to United States Department of Agriculture data.[20]

Recommended culling practices[edit]

The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends cervical dislocation and asphyxiation by carbon dioxide as the best options, but has recently amended their guidelines to include maceration, putting non-anesthetized chicks through a grinder.[21]

The 2005–2006 American Veterinary Medical Association Executive Board held its final meeting July 13 in Honolulu, prior to the 2006 session of the House of Delegates and the AVMA Annual Convention. It proposed a policy change, which was recommended by the Animal Welfare Committee on disposal of unwanted chicks, poults, and pipped eggs. The new policy states, in part, "Unwanted chicks, poults, and pipped eggs should be killed by an acceptable humane method, such as use of a commercially designed macerator that results in instantaneous death. Smothering unwanted chicks or poults in bags or containers is not acceptable. Pips, unwanted chicks, or poults should be killed prior to disposal. A pipped egg, or pip, is one where the chick or poult has not been successful in escaping the egg shell during the hatching process."[22]

Negative effects on poultry workers[edit]

In 2010, Human Rights Watch described slaughterhouse line work in the United States as a human rights crime.[23] In a report by Oxfam America, slaughterhouse workers were observed not being allowed breaks, were often required to wear diapers, and were paid below minimum wage.[24] Slaughterhouses in the United States commonly illegally employ and exploit underage workers and undocumented immigrants.[25][26] American slaughterhouse workers are three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average American worker.[27] The Guardian reports that on average there are two amputations a week involving slaughterhouse workers in the United States.[28] On average, one employee of Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in America, is injured and amputates a finger or limb per month.[29]

The act of slaughtering animals, or of raising or transporting animals for slaughter, may engender psychological stress or trauma in the people involved.[30][31][32][33][34][35][36][37][38][39][40][41] A 2016 study in Organization indicates, "Regression analyses of data from 10,605 Danish workers across 44 occupations suggest that slaughterhouse workers consistently experience lower physical and psychological well-being along with increased incidences of negative coping behavior."[42] In her thesis submitted to and approved by University of Colorado, Anna Dorovskikh states that slaughterhouse workers are "at risk of Perpetration-Inducted Traumatic Stress, which is a form of posttraumatic stress disorder and results from situations where the concerning subject suffering from PTSD was a causal participant in creating the traumatic situation."[43] A 2009 study by criminologist Amy Fitzgerald indicates, "slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries."[44]

Safety issues[edit]

Poultry production is regulated by the FDA, UL and OSHA. Due to the potential safety hazards of broken glass and chemicals like mercury and phosphors in consumable products, all lights within poultry production facilities must be safety coated.[45] The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service performs frequent checks on production facilities to ensure poultry is safe, wholesome and correctly labelled.[46]

Chlorinated chicken[edit]

In the United States it is common practice for chicken carcasses to be washed with antimicrobial rinses in order to remove harmful bacteria.[47]

These rinses, containing chlorine dioxide solution, acidified sodium chlorite, trisodium phosphate or peroxyacids, are often referred to as Pathogen Reduction Treatments. The process is said to reduce the prevalence of salmonella from 14% to 2%. Since 1997, the European Union has refused to permit the import of chicken treated in this way, claiming that it compensates for poor hygiene behaviour elsewhere in the supply chain and disincentivises the poultry industry to put in place proper hygiene practices. American negotiators say this is just protectionism.[48] It is claimed by opponents of Brexit that this shows how British food safety standards would drop. UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was said to have suggested that this might be part of a bilateral free trade agreement and was subsequently challenged to eat a chlorine-washed chicken live on camera.[49] Steve Baker, formerly a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, insisted in October 2018 that chlorine-washed chicken was just "clean chicken".[50]

Environmental issues[edit]

The Illinois River, which flows between Arkansas and Oklahoma, has had a high level of pollution due to water runoff contaminated with chicken manure.[51] The incineration of poultry wastes has been shown to have dangerous levels of a number of airborne pollutants, including heavy metals, aresenic, and halogens such as chlorine.[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Leighton, "Street Smarts: Tucson neighborhood originally was chicken colony," Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 7, 2015
  2. ^ U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Agricultural Statistics Service: Trends in U.S. Agriculture – Broiler Industry Archived July 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b "Strausberg" (1995), p. 3.
  4. ^ "Strausberg" (1995), p. 5.
  5. ^ "Strausberg" (1995), pp. 5-6.
  6. ^ "The Dollar Hen", Milo Hastings, Arcadia Press, 1909; reprint Norton Creek Press, 2003, Robert Plamondon, Ed., pp. 145–150.
  7. ^ "Poultry Nutrition", Ray Ewing, Ray Ewing Press, Third Edition, 1947, page 754.
  8. ^ "The Dollar Hen", Milo Hastings, Arcadia Press, 1909; reprint Norton Creek Press, 2003, Robert Plamondon, Ed., pp. 225–229.
  9. ^ Dryden, James. Poultry Breeding and Management. Orange Judd Press, 1916.
  10. ^ Stuesse, Angela and Laura Helton. "Low-Wage Legacies, Race, and the Golden Chicken in Mississippi: Where Contemporary Immigration Meets African American Labor History" Archived August 14, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, December 31, 2013, Southern Spaces.
  11. ^ Havenstein, G.B., P.R. Ferket, and M.A. Qureshi, 2003a. Growth, livability, and feed conversion of 1957 versus 2001 broilers when fed representative 1957 and 2001 broiler diets. Poult. Sci. 82:1500–1508
  12. ^ Raptor food Vet Ark, retrieved on 2008-08-02
  13. ^ "Poultry Litter for Fertilizer." Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
  14. ^ Milo Hastings, The Dollar Hen, Arcadia Press, 1909 (reissued by Norton Creek Press, 2003), chapter 12. ISBN 0972177019.
  15. ^ Huffstutter, P.J.; Polansek (May 5, 2015). "Exclusive: U.S. boosts bird flu emergency funds as Hormel cuts jobs". Reuters. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
  16. ^ "Egg prices jump as impact of bird flu begins pinching supply". My Way News. Associated Press. May 19, 2015. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  17. ^ Ferdman, Roberto A. (June 15, 2015). "Bad News for Breakfast". Washington Post. Retrieved June 7, 2015.
  18. ^ National Agricultural Statistics Service. "Chickens and Eggs Annual Summary" (PDF). National Agricultural Statistics Service. United States Department of Agriculture. p. 6. Retrieved August 24, 2011.
  19. ^ a b National Agricultural Statistics Service. "Chickens and Eggs Annual Summary" (PDF). National Agricultural Statistics Service. United States Department of Agriculture. p. 6. Retrieved August 24, 2011.
  20. ^ Poultry Slaughter Annual Summary – USDA
  21. ^ https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Documents/euthanasia.pdf
  22. ^ Executive Board meets pressing needs – September 15, 2006
  23. ^ "Rights on the Line". December 11, 2010. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  24. ^ Grabell, Michael. "Live on the Live". Oxfam America. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  25. ^ Waldman, Peter (December 29, 2017). "America's Worst Graveyard Shift Is Grinding Up Workers". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  26. ^ Grabell, Michael (May 1, 2017). "Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant". The New Yorker. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  27. ^ "Meatpacking". Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  28. ^ "Two amputations a week: the cost of working in a US meat plant". The Guardian. July 5, 2018. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  29. ^ Lewis, Cora (February 18, 2018). "America's Largest Meat Producer Averages One Amputation Per Month". Buzzfeed News. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  30. ^ "Sheep farmer who felt so guilty about driving his lambs to slaughter rescues them and becomes a vegetarian". The Independent. January 30, 2019. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  31. ^ Victor, Karen; Barnard, Antoni (April 20, 2016). "Slaughtering for a living: A hermeneutic phenomenological perspective on the well-being of slaughterhouse employees". International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being. 11: 30266. doi:10.3402/qhw.v11.30266. PMC 4841092. PMID 27104340.
  32. ^ "Working 'The Chain,' Slaughterhouse Workers Face Lifelong Injuries". Npr.org. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  33. ^ Anna Dorovskikh. "Theses : Killing for a Living: Psychological and Physiological Effects of Alienation of Food Production on Slaughterhouse Workers". Scholar.colorado.edu. Archived from the original on January 30, 2019. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  34. ^ "PTSD in the Slaughterhouse". The Texas Observer. February 7, 2012. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  35. ^ Newkey-Burden, Chas (November 19, 2018). "There's a Christmas crisis going on: no one wants to kill your dinner - Chas Newkey-Burden". The Guardian. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  36. ^ "Psychological Distress Among Slaughterhouse Workers Warrants Further Study - SPH - Boston University". School of Public Health. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  37. ^ Dillard, Jennifer (September 2007). "A Slaughterhouse Nightmare: Psychological Harm Suffered by Slaughterhouse Employees and the Possibility of Redress through Legal Reform". ResearchGate.net. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  38. ^ S, Serina; hu (March 2, 2018). "'I couldn't look them in the eye': Farmer who couldn't slaughter his cows is turning his farm vegan". Inews.co.uk. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  39. ^ Fox, Katrina. "Meet The Former Livestock Agent Who Started An International Vegan Food Business". Forbes.com. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  40. ^ Lebwohl, Michael (January 25, 2016). "A Call to Action: Psychological Harm in Slaughterhouse Workers". The Yale Global Health Review. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  41. ^ Nagesh, Ashitha (December 31, 2017). "The harrowing psychological toll of slaughterhouse work". Metro. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  42. ^ Baran, B. E.; Rogelberg, S. G.; Clausen, T (2016). "Routinized killing of animals: Going beyond dirty work and prestige to understand the well-being of slaughterhouse workers". Organization. 23 (3): 351–369. doi:10.1177/1350508416629456.
  43. ^ Dorovskikh, Anna (2015). Killing for a Living: Psychological and Physiological Effects of Alienation of Food Production on Slaughterhouse Workers (BSc). University of Colorado, Boulder.
  44. ^ Fitzgerald, A. J.; Kalof, L. (2009). "Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates: An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From "The Jungle" Into the Surrounding Community". Organization & Environment. 22 (2): 158–184. doi:10.1177/1350508416629456.
  45. ^ http://www.encapsulite.com/compliance.html
  46. ^ http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/production-and-inspection/poultry-processing-questions-and-answers
  47. ^ Schraer, Rachel; Edgington, Tom (March 5, 2019). "How safe is chlorine-washed chicken?". BBC News. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  48. ^ "Chlorinated chicken explained: why do the Americans treat their poultry with chlorine?". The Grocer. July 24, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
  49. ^ "Liam Fox challenged to eat chlorine-washed chicken and have it broadcast on live TV". Independent. July 24, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
  50. ^ "ERG Tory insists US chlorine-washed chicken is "just clean chicken"". London Economic. October 3, 2018. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
  51. ^ Eilperin, Juliet (August 28, 2006). "Pollution in the Water, Lawsuits in the Air". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  52. ^ "Air Pollution and Toxic Hazards Associated with Poultry Litter Incineration | Energy Justice Network". www.energyjustice.net. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  • Strausberg, Stephen F. (1995). From Hills and Hollers: Rise of the Poultry Industry in Arkansas. Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station Special Report 170. Fayetteville: Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. ISBN 0962285811. OCLC 32922427.