BLOOMBERG, MAY 11, 2020
Poultry production has long been the most industrialized of U.S. agricultural operations.
By Justin Fox for Bloomberg – Beef and pork have been pricey and, at times, scarce in the U.S. this spring amid outbreaks of the coronavirus at slaughterhouses around the country. Chicken has remained widely available and cheap. Why the difference?
One reason is that most slaughtering of chickens, unlike that of cattle and hogs, is automated. Deboning and cutting chicken into pieces is often done by hand, which is why there have been some shortages of boneless chicken. But machines are now available to do that work, too, and processors will surely buy more of them in the coming years.
Chicken farming has long been the most industrialized of American agricultural operations, and it keeps getting more so. The birds are bred for maximum meat production and raised in a matter of weeks in controlled indoor environments by farmers under contract to the likes of Tyson Foods Inc. and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. The animals’ small, uniform size lends itself to factory-style slaughtering and processing.
Not coincidentally, poultry costs U.S. consumers 62% less in inflation-adjusted terms than it did in 1935, which is how far back the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ price data go and was also just a few years after Delaware farmer Cecile Steele pioneered raising chickens by the thousands for their meat. (Before then, farmers kept chickens primarily for the eggs.) Pork, now also raised mostly at factory scale indoors, is 12% cheaper. Beef, which isn’t, costs 63% more. “Factory farming” is, with reason, a pejorative, but it’s enabled chicken to become the most consumed meat in the U.S.—passing pork in the 1990s and beef a decade ago—and it seems to be helping the industry weather the crisis.
• We’re No. 1
The U.S. is the world’s top chicken producer, with 43b pounds in 2018 to No. 2 Brazil’s 33 billion, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
• Global Reach
Several Caribbean nations top the world rankings for chicken consumption per capita. Among countries with more than 5 million people, Israel is No. 1, at 138 pounds per year.
• Job Creators
U.S. poultry processors employ 248,600 people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Slaughterers and processors of other meats employ 286,900. Both numbers are up about 5% since 2000, while poultry production has risen 32% and red meat production is up 12%.
• Growing Appetite
Along with price, health concerns have driven some of beef’s decline and chicken’s rise, though recent research disputes that red meat is riskier.
Fox is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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