clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How chickens took over America’s dinner plates, in one chart

Americans eat twice as much chicken as they did in the 1970s. Why?

Chickens in cages at a conventional egg production farm.
Chickens at a commercial egg farm.
Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Earlier this month, almost 100 million Americans tuned in to watch the Super Bowl, and they ate about 1.4 billion chicken wings and drumsticks — wings and legs from 700 million birds. And that’s part of the larger picture of chicken consumption in America. Every year, Americans consume 8 billion chickens. These are mind-boggling numbers.

But it’s worth remembering we didn’t always eat this much chicken, and a new report sheds some light on how poultry took over the meat industry. It also provides some insights into how plant-based meat producers could gain a bigger share of America’s plates.

The report details the threat plant-based foods pose for the beef industry, which commissioned the report. It’s an issue we’ve covered extensively here at Future Perfect, though usually from the perspective that that threat is a good thing, because factory farming is bad for the environment and awful for the billions of animals involved.

It was interesting to read an analysis of many of the same questions I’ve reported on, but from a very different angle — questions like, are people buying plant-based meat products in place of slaughtered meat, or do plant-based meat products appeal mostly to vegetarians? How much will drops in price help plant-based meat products compete with slaughtered meat?

The report’s assessment is that plant-based products are still a tiny share of the meat market, and those who buy them are typically “flexitarians” or other people trying to reduce their meat consumption. Plant-based products still have plenty of room for growth.

But the thing that stands out most in the report is actually a point of profound agreement between me and the beef industry: that the enormous rise in chicken consumption in America has been a disaster, though we have very different reasons for why we think so.

The consequences of our chicken-heavy diets

Americans eat way more chickens — and, actually, significantly fewer cows — than we used to. Here’s a graph from the report, showing per capita meat consumption since 1970:

Impacts of New Plant-Based Protein Alternatives on U.S. Beef Demand
Tonsor, Lusk, and Schroeder, 2021

As the chart shows, per capita beef consumption has actually significantly declined over the last few decades. (To be clear, overall beef consumption is higher, but that’s because the population has increased dramatically.) Meanwhile, per capita chicken consumption has skyrocketed over the same period. In 1970, the average person ate about 50 pounds of meat from chickens a year; today, it’s more than 100.

From an environmental perspective, the rise of chicken at the expense of beef is okay news — intensive chicken farming doesn’t produce as many greenhouse gases as intensive beef farming (though it is bad for the environment in other ways).

But from an animal welfare perspective, it is awful news.

Beef production is somewhat less industrialized and intensive than chicken farming. Many cows raised on a modern American farm get to spend some time outside and in decent conditions, compared to most farmed animals.

Most chickens, on the other hand, spend every minute of their short lives in crowded, ammonia-filled indoor spaces, as we saw in a recent undercover investigation into a farm that supplies chicken for Costco. They’re also bred to grow too fast, putting pressure on their joints and making normal chicken behavior impossible. And one cow feeds lots of people, while one chicken doesn’t, so demand for a pound of chicken involves way more animal suffering than demand for a pound of beef.

What plant-based producers could learn from Big Poultry

On the surface, this may seem like discouraging news for animal welfare advocates — push animals to their biological limit and gain a bigger market share. But it actually paints a clear picture as to how plant-based meat producers could get a bigger share of the market. If they can drop their prices as much as chicken companies did, they might see a similar rise in sales. Plant-based startups are making some progress on that front, though they’re still far from being cost-competitive with animal meat.

But the report argues price wasn’t the only driver of chicken’s surge, and in fact that analysis suggests price explains less than half of it. Health and safety concerns about cholesterol and fat contributed too. Chicken is broadly thought of as a healthier meat, lower in fat and cholesterol (though researchers say this may not be the case). So to steal chicken’s throne, plant-based companies will likely have to sell consumers on their health and environmental benefits, and food safety, too.

The rise of chicken as America’s dominant source of protein from 1970 to the present has been almost unremarked upon despite its huge implications for the well-being of billions of animals. Whatever happens with plant-based meats, it’s likely to get a lot more attention. From animal activists to the media to the beef industry, plant-based meat products are being closely watched — and we’ll see whether they can pull off their hoped-for rise to prominence.