In 1960, an agricultural experiment station in Maine surveyed consumers in New England and came to a startling conclusion – “Many housewives do not consider chicken to be a meat.” Meat meant beef. Beef came in many different forms from convenient, everyday hamburgers, to roasts and steak. Consumers could get a variety of portion sizes, and the cost was about the same as other meats.
“Chicken apparently has not fully achieved the status and prestige of a meat item,” the study said. Generally, they were sold as whole birds, so if a consumer did not have a “traditional” family, individuals and couples ended up with a lot of leftovers. Chicken was generally cooked in one way – fried – so the consumer wasn’t presented with a lot of variety in taste options. Add to these factors the fact that chicken was as expensive as beef and you have chicken being served as an occasional alternative to “real” meat.
Over the next couple of decades, chicken producers responded to consumer demands, revolutionized both their products and production methods, took advantage of new health research and overtook beef as the most popular meat on the tables of consumers.
Poultry production also concentrated onto fewer and fewer farms. According to the Census of Agriculture, between 1940 and 1969 the number chickens on farms stayed relatively stable at around 370,000 birds. But the number of farms growing those chickens dropped from over 5 million in 1940 to less than 500,000 in 1969. Processing those chickens also concentrated into a few, vertically integrated companies.
The transformation began with the birds themselves. In 1948, the Extension Service office in Delaware – one of the centers of poultry production in the country – put on a “Chicken of Tomorrow Festival.” The big supermarket chain A&P wanted better “meat-type” chickens. That meant they needed more breast meat on the birds and white feathers so that any feathers that weren’t removed in processing were not as noticeable. Through a series of contests, a breed from the Vantress Hatchery in California became the “Chicken of Tomorrow,” and, in fact within 10 years, Vantress chickens would become the standard for poultry producers.
During this period, several producers paid attention to consumer needs and began to dominate the market. For instance, Don Tyson started his chicken growing operation in the 40s after operating a trucking company shipping birds from growers in Arkansas to markets in Kansas City. In 1964, Tyson convinced the U.S. Army that precooked, portion-controlled was a convenient way to feed the troops. Later, they convinced housewives that they could feed their “troops” in the same convenient way. Prepackaged, smaller portions meant that individuals and couples could buy only as much meat as they could eat in one sitting. They found out that Americans like white meat better than dark, so they began shipping the legs and thighs to export markets where those cuts were more popular. Then, Tyson convinced McDonald’s to start selling their Chicken McNuggets and Burger King to sell Tyson chicken patties. As American consumers became more interested in recipes from other countries, Tyson and other producers began developing frozen dinners that offered chicken in a variety of flavors.
By closely following how American society and its eating habits were changing, Tyson became the largest producer of chicken in the world.
Ironically, with the chicken breed now standardized, producers needed to find other ways to distinguish their brand from others. Maryland producer Frank Purdue borrowed from beef producers like Oscar Meyer and used clever advertising and tight production control to develop brand loyalty, especially in the lucrative New York market. In 1968, Purdue spent $50,000 on radio ads designed to make his name synonymous with chicken. He invited customers to write to him – the president of the company – directly if they had any complaints. “I’ll give you your money back,” Purdue said. “If you some government-approved chicken, and you’re not completely satisfied, who do you write? The President of the United States? What does he know about chickens?” In one month, 22,000 customers wrote, some to complain, but many just to get more information. All of those who wrote got a reply and a free 59-page cookbook with recipes that went well beyond just “fried chicken.”
Later, Purdue put himself on TV with a series of humorous ads that depicted him as a stickler for details of his chicken operations. The tagline was, “It takes a tough man to produce a tender chicken.”
Both Purdue and Tyson were also innovators in production methods – methods that sharply reduced the price of chicken in the supermarkets. The companies that began to dominate the poultry industry found way to tightly integrate their operations, controlling every detail every step along the way.
For instance, as early as the 1930s, founder John Tyson began integrating his operations. When a local hatchery refused to supply him with baby chicks, Tyson bought incubators and chicks from other suppliers. When a local feed mill couldn’t get him feed on time, he started his own feed mill. In 1943, he bought a broiler farm in Arkansas. He started his own breeding program, and later bought out the Vantress “Chicken of Tomorrow” breed and farm.
In 1952, John Tyson brought his son Don into the business after he graduated from college with a degree in agricultural nutrition. Don began to closely control the feed mixtures to produce the fastest weight gains on the least feed.
In the late 50s, Tyson built their own processing plant and gradually introduced automated ways to kill and process birds more efficiently, reducing costs for consumers. Today, the companies own the birds all the way through their lives, contracting with farmers to grow them using the company’s own feeding formulas for a specified number of days in the controlled environments of confinement facilities. Owning the processing plant and distribution system means that the companies can quickly respond to new consumer desires with new products.
In the 1960s, health studies were showing the benefits of low-fat diets, and consumer demand began to change. The poultry industry quickly began advertising these advantages.
By the mid-90s, chicken had not only become a “meat” but the meat of choice. Corporate integration, reduced costs, health concerns, additional choices in portions and tastes, and aggressive marketing resulted in chicken surpassing beef in per capita consumption.