Chicken is a mainstay of many Americans' diets, but it wasn't always this way. In fact, as recently as the 1920s, chickens were raised primarily for their eggs — not their meat. Chicken meat was expensive, not considered very tasty and only available seasonally, as chickens were typically slaughtered in the fall after they were no longer needed for laying eggs.
In her book, "Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats," journalist Maryn McKenna uncovers how chickens became big business — and it all started with a mistake. In 1923, a farmer in Delaware accidentally placed an order for too many hatchling chickens (500 instead of 50), so she sold them for meat.
She was so successful that she did it again the next year, and the next. Her neighbors took notice, and the chicken meat industry took off.1 Then, in 1948, a national "Chicken of Tomorrow" contest, seeking to develop a meatier chicken, was sponsored by A&P supermarket and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The major lines of chickens sold in the U.S. today can all be traced back to the contest's winner.
As new farming methods made it easier for farmers to raise more chickens, new chicken products, from nuggets to sausages, were created, and Americans took to viewing chickens as a primary source of meat. "The deal was sealed with the introduction of the McNugget in 1980 and, today, Americans eat more than four times as much chicken as we did at the start of the 20th century," Gastropod, an online agency that looks at the history of science and food, noted.2
The Rise of Big Chicken Was Fueled by Antibiotics
McKenna's book also highlights the instrumental role antibiotics played in turning chickens from primarily egg layers into a meat source. According to Gastropod:3
"In 1948, a British scientist, Thomas Jukes, was experimenting with adding vitamins and other supplements to poultry feed. Jukes worked for a company that also synthesized antibiotics, a new genre of wonder drugs that had just begun to transform human health, and so he decided to add a tiny amount of his company's antibiotic to the feed of one of the groups of chickens in his studies.
His results were astonishing: the chickens on drugs grew 2.5 times faster than the hens kept on a standard diet. News spread fast, and only a few years later, American farmers were feeding their animals nearly half a million pounds of antibiotics a year."
Today we're seeing the catastrophic consequences of this practice. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used by industrial agriculture for purposes of growth promotion and preventing diseases that would otherwise make their concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) unviable. Low doses of antibiotics are added to feed as a matter of course, not only to stave off inevitable infectious diseases but also because they cause the animals to grow faster on less food.
"But there is a terrifying downside to this practice," Scientific American reported. "Antibiotics seem to be transforming innocent farm animals into disease factories."4 The antibiotics may kill most of the bacteria in the animal, but remaining resistant bacteria is allowed to survive and multiply. When the FDA tests raw supermarket chicken, they routinely find antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be present.5
The Acronized Chicken of the 1950s
Aside from using antibiotics for growth promotion purposes, a process known as "acronization" also became popular — and heavily promoted — during the 1950s, further promoting the beginnings of antibiotic resistance.
Acronized chicken was pawned off via an aggressive marketing campaign as a "fresher, tastier poultry," courtesy of the "acronize" preservation process. There was no mention of antibiotics, but what acronized essentially meant was the chicken had been treated with the antibiotic chlortetracycline — the trade name of which was Acronize.6 McKenna wrote:7
"Every bird (and, later, fish too) that was advertised as having been Acronized had been soaked in a diluted solution of antibiotics while it was being butchered. The solution contained enough drug to leave a film on the meat. The film lingered while the chickens were packaged for sale, while they sat in stores' refrigerated cases, and all the way into home kitchens, keeping bacteria that would have caused the meat to spoil from growing on its surface.
The goal of this process was to extend the time in which raw meat could be offered for sale — not just by a few days, but by a freakishly artificial several weeks and up to a month."
It was commonplace at the time for diseased chickens to be passed off as healthy, and the antibiotics bath gave consumers extra assurance that the meat would not make them sick. However, soon after the process became widespread, an outbreak of staph occurred among slaughterhouse workers — on their arms, which were frequently dunked into antibiotic-laced water.