How the Chicken Conquered the World

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Story at-a-glance -

  • For at least 10,000 years, from Rome to Egypt to China to your dinner plate today, the chicken has been a part of folklore, history, meal traditions, and even religion
  • Ancient Egyptians were reportedly among the first to master “artificial incubation,” allowing them to raise a larger number of eggs for food
  • In ancient Rome, chicken farmers used mixtures of wine-soaked bread or cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat to fatten up chickens
  • Prior to the 1920s, poultry was raised for fun in the United States, mostly as a hobby, but not so much as a food source – the fact that you could eat them was incidental
  • Once farmers realized they could simply add vitamin D and other vitamins and medications to chicken feed, they also realized they no longer had to let the chickens outdoors, and “modern” chicken farming was born
  • When it comes to choosing a source for your chicken and eggs, the closer you can get to the “backyard barnyard,” the better; you’ll want to get your chickens and eggs from small community farms with free-ranging hens that are organically fed and locally marketed

By Dr. Mercola

For at least 10,000 years, from Rome to Egypt to China to your dinner plate today, the now lowly – but historically revered – chicken has been a part of folklore, history, meal traditions, and even religion.

How it got to where it is today is a fascinating tale that the Smithsonian Magazine relates in lively fashion.

Chronicling the history behind chicken as a food staple, and even the story behind the original chicken farms of ancient Rome, if you're interested in the details of how chickens underwent transformation from a sacred animal to a national dish that has ended up surpassing beef as America's most popular meat, read the featured article in detail...

Egypt and Rome: Homes to The First "Chicken Farms"

Wild chickens originated in India and East Asia (China, Thailand, and Vietnam) and appear to have been domesticated around 7000 B.C., simultaneously in China and India. Chickens spread to West Asia around 2500 B.C., and on to Africa and Egypt thereafter.

Chickens reached North and South America in the 1500s along with Spanish explorers and were reportedly part of the Mayflower cargo.

Ancient Egyptians were reportedly among the first to master "artificial incubation," allowing them to raise a larger number of eggs for food (eggs were also used symbolically in Egyptian temples to encourage a prosperous river flood). According to the Smithsonian Magazine:

"This was no easy matter. Most chicken eggs will hatch in three weeks, but only if the temperature is kept constant at around 99 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity stays close to 55 percent, increasing in the last few days of incubation. The eggs must also be turned three to five times a day, lest physical deformities result.

The Egyptians constructed vast incubation complexes made up of hundreds of 'ovens.' Each oven was a large chamber, which was connected to a series of corridors and vents that allowed attendants to regulate the heat from fires fueled by straw and camel dung. The egg attendants kept their methods a secret from outsiders for centuries."

In ancient Rome, chicken farmers used mixtures of wine-soaked bread or cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat to fatten up chickens, and also were the first to castrate roosters to boost their growth. Ancient cultures regarded fowl as sacred. In 300 B.C., a verse described four lessons that could be learned from the cock:1

  • Fighting well
  • Getting up early
  • Eating with your family
  • Protecting your spouse when she gets into trouble

The Greeks and Romans often sacrificed chickens in religious rituals. In many cultures, fowl were believed to hold mystical qualities. After the collapse of Rome, their organized chicken "farms" largely disappeared and chickens were displaced by geese and partridge, which were the favored form of poultry cuisine for centuries.

"Well into the 20th century, chickens, although valued, particularly as a source of eggs, played a relatively minor role in the American diet and economy. Long after cattle and hogs had entered the industrial age of centralized, mechanized slaughterhouses, chicken production was still mostly a casual, local enterprise," the Smithsonian Magazine reported.

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In the Early 1900s, Poultry Was Raised Just for "Fun"

Prior to the 1920s, poultry was raised for fun in the United States, mostly as a hobby, but not so much as a food source – the fact that you could eat them was incidental. Backyard "poultrymen," as an April 1927 National Geographic article called them,2 gradually disappeared after World War I. Chicken coops were replaced by automobile garages as post-war mechanization took over, and chickens began to be regarded more as livestock.

Henneries became commercialized operations capitalizing on poultry's economic value as a human food.

Chickens saved the day for thousands of farmers in the Midwest who suffered crop failures, labor shortages, and price drops, and who were unable to make a living. Chickens were, and still are, very efficiently "manufactured" from raw material – a four-pound hen consuming 75 to 80 pounds of feed will produce 25 to 30 pounds of eggs!

In 1927, most flocks consisted of 50-300 birds. But flocks didn't stay that small and cozy for long. By the 1940s, the chicken population in every American city was roughly half that of the human population. Most people obtained their eggs from their own backyard, or from a neighbor or a farmers market down the street. What happened to the backyard poultry farmers?

"The breakthrough that made today's quarter-million-bird farms possible was the fortification of feed with antibiotics and vitamins, which allowed chickens to be raised indoors," Smithsonian Magazine explained.

The Invention of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)

Chickens, like most animals and humans, depend on sunlight to produce vitamin D, and as such spend a great deal of time outdoors pecking around in the dirt – if given the option. Once farmers realized they could simply add vitamin D and other vitamins and medications to chicken feed, they also realized they no longer had to let the chickens outdoors.

It's a sad state of affairs for a creature that was once not only revered by Roman armies (who brought them to battle and believed their good appetite was a sign of victory) but is reportedly affectionate enough to make a great pet. Smithsonian Magazine expands:

"Factory farming [CAFOs] represents the chicken's final step in its transformation into a protein-producing commodity. Hens are packed so tightly into wire cages (less than half a square foot per bird) that they can't spread their wings; as many as 20,000 to 30,000 broilers are crowded together in windowless buildings.

The result has been a vast national experiment in supply-side gastro-economics: Factory farms turning out increasing amounts of chicken have called forth an increasing demand. By the early 1990s, chicken had surpassed beef as Americans' most popular meat (measured by consumption, that is, not opinion polls), with annual consumption running at around nine billion birds, or 80 pounds per capita, not counting the breading.

Modern chickens are cogs in a system designed to convert grain into protein with staggering efficiency. It takes less than two pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken (live weight), less than half the feed/weight ratio in 1945… Gary Balducci, a third-generation poultry farmer in Edgecomb, Maine, can turn a day-old chick into a five-pound broiler in six weeks, half the time it took his grandfather.

And selective breeding has made the broilers so docile that even if chickens are given access to outdoor space – a marketing device that qualifies the resulting meat to be sold as 'free-range' – they prefer hanging out at the mechanized trough, awaiting the next delivery of feed. "Chickens used to be great browsers," says Balducci, "but ours can't do that. All they want to do now is eat."

The Reality of "Modern" Chicken Farming

You may recall in 2010 that over half a billion eggs from two Iowa farms were recalled after authorities linked them to Salmonella poisoning across the United States. This is a product of modern agribusiness "farms," which produce eggs in such a way that makes contamination risks soar.

Chickens raised in unsanitary conditions are far more likely to be contaminated, and lay contaminated eggs. In fact, one study by the British government found that 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for Salmonella, compared to just over 4 percent in organic flocks and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks.

About 95 percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. come from gigantic egg factories housing millions of hens under one roof. You can only imagine how difficult – if not impossible – it is to keep millions of birds in one location and still produce a product that's safe to eat. The problem is not only in the eggs, but also in the meat.

Due to their crowded conditions, unnatural diets and inability to roam free, cage-raised chickens have to be given routine doses of antibiotics and other drugs, all of which have serious health implications for you the consumer, including increasing the spread of serious antibiotic-resistant infectious pathogens in humans.

It has even recently been suggested that a growing number of antibiotic-resistant cases of urinary tract infections in women are linked to the overuse of antibiotics in chickens, and their resultant drug-resistant bacteria strains transferring to humans.The Atlantic recently reported:3

"Continuing to treat urinary tract infections as a short-term, routine ailment rather than a long-term food safety issue risks turning the responsible bacteria into a major health crisis."

The lesson here is, the closer you can get to the "backyard barnyard," the better. You'll want to get your chickens and eggs from smaller community farms with free-ranging hens, organically fed and locally marketed. This is the way poultry was done for centuries... before it was corrupted by politics, corporate greed and the blaring ignorance of the food industry.

Getting Back to the Basics…

Increasing numbers of people are fed up with the food safety issues and inhumane treatment that CAFOs represent… and as such are turning to farmers using methods of yesteryear to get their chickens. The key here is to buy your eggs locally. About the only time I purchase eggs from the store is when I am traveling or for some reason I miss my local egg pickup. When at home I also purchase at least one four-pound hen a week, which I boil for several hours and make an awesome chicken soup.

Fortunately, finding high-quality pastured chickens and organic eggs is relatively easy, as virtually every rural area has small farmers with chickens. If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores and farmers' markets are typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources.

Without question the single best source you can find is a local farmer who is raising their chickens humanely and not in a CAFO. The chickens should be allowed outside, and to eat insects. Please watch my video above with farmer Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farm, to see how this looks in the real world.

If you find these eggs, the yolks will be bright orange due to the increased lutein content – a great indication that it is loaded to the hilt with other key nutrients as well. If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, you may want to consider a backyard barnyard. Beyond the obvious advantage of a continual supply of wonderfully fresh eggs, there are other advantages:

  • Non-toxic bug and weed control
  • Manufacturing of the world's best fertilizer
  • Living sustainably
  • Improved compost from chicken manure and egg shells
  • Saving a chicken from a cruel CAFO life
  • Fun and friendly, low-maintenance pets with lots of personality

If you are interested in the possibility of raising a few chickens yourself, a good place to begin is by asking yourself a few questions. You can also visit Joel's Polyface Farm Web site for more details on raising chickens.

  1. Can I dedicate some time each day? You can expect to devote about 10 minutes a day, an hour per month, and a few hours twice a year to the care and maintenance of your brood.4
  2. Do I have enough space? They will need a minimum of 10 square feet per bird to roam, preferably more. The more foraging they can do, the healthier and happier they'll be and the better their eggs will be.
  3. What are the chicken regulations in my town? You will want to research this before jumping in because some places have zoning restrictions and even noise regulations (which especially applies if you have a rooster).
  4. Are my neighbors on board with the idea? It's a good idea to see if they have any concerns early on. When they learn they might be the recipients of occasional farm-fresh eggs, they might be more agreeable.
  5. Can I afford a flock? There are plenty of benefits to growing your own eggs, but saving money isn't one of them. There are significant upfront costs to getting a coop set up, plus ongoing expenses for supplies.