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U.S. chicken prices steady 60 years

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Daniel Fletcher is a scholar of all things cluckish.

Fletcher, a University of Georgia poultry and food scientist and a recent inductee as a fellow of the Poultry Science Association, recites the history of poultry production like some scholars spew Shakespearean prose.

"This is a grocery store newspaper ad from 1948," Fletcher said, pointing to a frame on the wall of a UGA poultry research facility. "At that time, 57 years ago, chicken sold for 69 cents a pound. Last summer, we were selling chicken for 69 cents a pound."

Just with normal inflation, chicken at 69 cents a pound in 1948 would be $5.71 a pound now.

"It's so cheap because of the efficient way we produce chicken," Fletcher said. "If I gave you a one-day-old chicken and all you had to do was feed it, it would still cost you more to do that than to go to a grocery story and buy it."

Super science

Efficiency is the name of the game. "We owe it to nutrition and genetics," he said. "Back in the 1930s it took 16 weeks and about 12 pounds of feed to produce a 3-pound broiler. Now we do it in less than six weeks with less than 6 pounds of feed."

The dramatic difference has led some to contend that U.S. poultry is treated with growth hormones. "Why people talk about that, I don't know," Fletcher said. "We've never used any hormones in the United States. We don't need hormones for chickens."

The secret to improvements in U.S. poultry, he said, is all in the science.

"We've mastered the genetics and nutrition," Fletcher said. "We know much more about feeding chickens than we do about feeding human beings. There's only one way you can eat better than a chicken, and that's to eat the chicken."

With the genetic and nutrition changes, chickens "grow like crazy, and we don't have to give them anything," Fletcher said. "You try to slow a chicken down from growing. You can't. You give them a little bit of food and water and they'll grow."

The genetic changes have created chickens with more breast meat than chickens even 25 years ago. "Poultry is the space shuttle of agriculture," he boasted. "It's the highest technology in agriculture."

Eat more chicken

He motioned around the state-of-the-art pilot processing facility he oversees. "What we do here," he said, "is take a bird with feathers on it and turn it into something people want to eat."

People don't say they want beef for dinner, he said. "They say, 'I want a hamburger, or I want a steak.' They want a meal, not a commodity."

"There are more than 100 types of chicken products you can buy in the grocery story," Fletcher says. "About 35 percent of the chicken sold in the U.S. is sold in consumer packages," he said, "Shoppers don't take home a whole chicken any more."

They don't take home much to cook at all. Fletcher said about half of the food eaten in this country is prepared outside the home.

Poultry fits in with the U.S. culture, Fletcher said. "Chicken is so low-fat that you can put a lot more chicken in a dish than beef and still hold the fat content down," he said. "It has less fat and fewer calories than other meats out there. It fits the diet lifestyle very well."

Fletcher said chicken "was the original convenience food," too.

"Think about it," he said. "If you wanted beef and killed a cow, what would you do with the meat you didn't eat that night? You'd have leftovers for three months. But if you wanted chicken, you went out in the backyard and grabbed one, and pretty soon that was dinner. That's convenience."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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