Consumption of chicken per person has risen by 70% in rich countries since 1990
Walk into any upscale supermarket in a big city and you will find a vegan section. This might lead you to believe that the number of herbivores is increasing. Perhaps it is, but surveys show that less than 10% of Europeans have cut meat entirely from their diets. According to Gallup, a polling firm, just 5% of American adults are vegetarians, a proportion that is virtually unaltered since 1999. But even though Westerners remain wary of ingesting tofu sausages, and are eating the same amounts of beef and pork, their diets have still changed significantly in recent decades. Data from the OECD, a Paris-based think-tank, show that since 1990 consumption of chicken per person has risen by 70% in rich countries.
How did chicken become a quintessential part of Western cuisine? One reason relates to health. In the 1980s doctors warned that eating too much saturated fat, found in red meat, could increase the risk of heart disease. And now, though doctors worry less about saturated fat, new evidence suggests that eating red meat can lead to colon cancer. In contrast, chicken’s reputation as a clean meat has remained unscathed.
Another reason why people are eating more chicken is that it has become cheaper. Poultry producers have been much more successful than producers of other meats at cutting costs. In 1960 a pound of chicken cost half as much as a pound of beef. This ratio has now fallen to one-third. Since the 1940s farmers have competed to produce bigger birds, which offer more meat. The proliferation of antibiotics in industrial agriculture allows farmers to keep chickens in denser and dirtier conditions than ever before. A study by Martin Zuidhof from the University of Alberta found that the average broiler chicken, raised for meat, weighed 4.2kg at 56 days of age in 2005, up from just 0.9kg in 1957. Bigger chickens, living closer together, become more efficient at converting grain into meat as they lack the space to move around.
These two aspects, the healthy and the wealthy, have created a boon for consumers eager to scoff large amounts of lean protein. But they may want to listen to animal-welfare advocates. Nearly all of the chickens’ weight gain comes in the form of muscle mass, which means that their organs have to work harder than before. Cardiovascular problems are common, as is lameness. Broiler chickens are now so big that their muscles prevent them from getting on top of each other to mate. Consequently, the growth of birds chosen to be breeders must be stunted through calorie restriction while they are young. Modern chickens might be a source of healthy meals for humans, but their own well-being has been compromised even further.
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