The intense use of antibiotics means that farmers no longer need to spend much time worrying about their chickens’ welfare. Before the second world war, most birds were raised on small plots. Farmers kept hens for eggs and sold their meat when they got too old to lay any more. But prophylactics have allowed farmers to pack chickens into conditions that would once have been considered unthinkably cramped and dirty. Birds raised in denser quarters do not move around much, and so require less to eat.
Farmers have also benefited from the healthy reputation of chicken. In the 1980s doctors worried that by eating too much beef and pork people were ingesting lots of saturated fat, which was then thought to increase the risk of heart disease. Those fears have since waned, but new evidence suggests that red meat might increase people’s chances of getting colon cancer. In contrast, poultry’s image as a healthy meat survives unscathed.
It is not just fussy Western eaters who increasingly favour chicken. Rising incomes mean that demand for the meat is growing even faster in poorer countries. As a result, chickens are now the world’s most widely traded meat. In economic terms they are, in effect, the opposite of cars. They are produced whole. But their value is maximised once they are broken up.
Though Westerners prefer lean, white meat; many in Asia and Africa prefer dark meat, which includes legs and thighs. These preferences are reflected in local prices: in America breasts are 88% more expensive than legs; in Indonesia they are 12% cheaper. Differences in the price of chicken feet are even starker. The thought of eating talons is abhorrent to many Westerners, but they often feature in Cantonese recipes. China now imports 300,000 tonnes of “phoenix claws” every year.
The fact that different countries specialise in different kinds of production also boosts trade. America and Brazil, the world’s two biggest chicken exporters, are agricultural powerhouses that grow huge amounts of feed, the main cost in poultry production. Thailand and China, in contrast, dominate the processed-meat market which requires cheap, skilled labour. Russia and Ukraine, once net importers of chicken, have become net exporters as their grain industries have grown.
Producers that sell their meat abroad expose themselves to risks. Chicken has been a flashpoint in trade negotiations. China imposed tariffs on American birds in 2010 and then banned all imports in 2015, shortly after an outbreak of avian flu. Industry observers are pessimistic the ban will be lifted, much to the dismay of American farmers who would love to be paid more for the 20bn chicken feet they produce every year, which currently become animal feed.