While traveling in Europe several years ago, Professor of History Paul Josephson noticed chicken there tasted different from home. Neatly tucked on plastic and wrapped in cellophane, it looked the same as what you’d buy in a U.S. supermarket—but it was better, and he wondered why.
Josephson’s attempt to answer that question resulted in his new book, Chicken: A History from Farmyard to Factory. After reading about the humble chicken’s journey from farm fixture and cultural symbol to industrial broiler, you likely will never look at a nugget the same way again. Josephson, who says he has almost abandoned eating non-organic chicken, talks here about what’s wrong with our love of fast, easy poultry and how we might rethink it.
What tasted different to you about the chicken in Europe? In the book, the EU doesn’t come off much better than the U.S. in terms of its practices.
Right, the processes are quite similar. There’s a bit more room given to the animals raised for our eating purposes in the EU. There is a much greater effort to show them some kind of comfort as they move inevitably from eggs to their death. It’s hard to make a distinction, but I made one first in terms of taste, texture, and color. I think in the U.S., chicken is more like cardboard. I do all the cooking in my household. It’s a lot of fun—I try things all the time. And no matter what I would do with U.S. chicken that came in those packages, it always struck me as being tough and not very tasty. It seemed un-chicken, no different from going to a fast food joint.
You write about how the market partly was shaped by the American grocery chain A&P, which I found surprising.
That was really interesting to me as well, to discover that Atlantic and Pacific—or as we call it now, A&P—was involved in a Chicken of Tomorrow contest to have breeders produce the best kind of chicken, the “best” meaning it could be rapidly produced, rapidly processed, rapidly delivered to the supermarket, and then would no longer be a luxury. It used to be Sunday dinner might be a wonderful turkey or a wonderful chicken. But it’s no longer a food for special occasions, it’s an everyday food.
So what is the problem with the way we produce chicken meat today?
The problem with the way we produce chicken meat in the world, and especially in the United States, is that it occurs in an industrial setting. The animals are no longer treated as animals. They are outputs from a variety of inputs. Those inputs are capital and labor. Very rapidly after World War II, we turned from the farm animal—which might be a friend to people and would hunt and peck—to one that is confined in an environment where air, temperature, light are all regulated. They receive feed according to current standards—feed designed in certain ways. Everything about the bird is really industrial. It is no longer a bird. They’ve been genetically selected to grow as quickly as possible, to “bird up.” A bird which normally would have a life expectancy of several years is expected to get its full maturity in seven weeks, six weeks even.
Consumers don’t really complain about this. I don’t think they know much about the dark sides that I talk about in the book. But consumers want cheap chicken meat. They want to go to the store and have these packages seemingly clean and bloodless and cheap and ready to go home and prepare. We are all responsible—it’s not as if the followers of Henry Ford imposed the industrial ethos on us.
How are the chickens grown today different, biologically speaking?
Most of the chickens in the world are produced by three firms. There’s no biodiversity in the chicken market. We’re producing animals whose goal it is to feed us, to fatten up as quickly as possible. They suffer, as I write about in this book, from a variety of maladies and diseases that they wouldn’t have, necessarily, had they not been bred into them.
You could argue that much of the cause of the current pandemic is the way that everywhere around the world, as we push back the forest and establish agricultural communities closer and closer to what’s left of wilderness, we have a different environment in which it’s much easier for viruses and other problems that exist in the world to jump from animals into the human population or into our human food chains.
Consumers can make more informed choices. I’m not saying it’s a panacea, but the U.S. system is the worst in this regard. It’s all about production as quickly as possible, as much as possible. Consumers really don’t have the opportunity to make good choices about sustainability. We all need to train our children to understand the mistakes we’ve made so that they eat better.
What else needs to change, besides consumer choices?
Before any expansion of this industry goes on, the industry, along with the representatives of science and government and citizens groups, need to figure out what to do with the waste. It’s essentially a problem that’s been pushed aside and pushed aside. If you have 51 billion chickens raised throughout the Earth in any given year, that’s a lot of poop and feathers. We have given exemptions to certain production facilities in terms of the way they store and handle this waste. It’s totally inadequate. So I would say there should be no more permits or expansions allowed until we deal with it. You can also see, in what’s happening with the production and the spread between people of COVID-19, how terrible these facilities are, whether it’s pork or chicken or beef. We need to have a pause.
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