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How the Chicken of Tomorrow became the Chicken of the World

From The Chicken of Tomorrow, 1948.

Rotisserie chicken, chicken nuggets, Kung pao chicken, chicken livers, Buffalo wings, chicken Kiev, lemon chicken, chicken soup, barbecue chicken, chicken salad, fried chicken—there is no denying that the U.S. loves chicken. According to the USDA, poultry production exceeds $20 billion annually, with over 43 billion pounds of meat produced. The National Chicken Council estimates per capita consumption of chicken in the U.S. at over 80 pounds a year. What’s surprising is that it hasn’t always been this way. This is the story of how an Italian immigrant farmer and his son helped launch the industrial production of chicken.

Prior to World War II, chicken was reserved for special occasions. If you lived on a farm back then, the arrival of visiting relatives meant roast chicken for dinner. Sunday dinner with the family was often graced with chicken and peas. Farm flocks were generally the domain of women and children to earn some cash selling eggs. Back then, chickens for eating were a by-product of egg production (that is, chickens would be butchered only when their laying days were done),  with the modern broiler industry only starting to take shape in the 1920s and 30s in places like the Delmarva Peninsula on the Atlantic coast.

Flock sizes grew from a rooster and few hens to some flocks with 10,000 or more chickens, but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s when vertical integration of the broiler industry occurred and chicken factories with hundreds of thousands of birds appeared. Before that, flocks were an assortment of breeds, with names like Jersey Giant, California Gray, Wyandotte and Rhode Island Red. The turning point for industrial chicken came when the Atlantic and Pacific supermarket chain held a national contest for the “Chicken of Tomorrow.”

A&P, Arbor Acres and the Chicken of Tomorrow

In 1945, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (or the A&P as it was universally known), the country’s largest poultry retailer, sponsored a national contest in partnership with USDA to produce a breed of chicken that would grow bigger, faster and put on weight in all the right places. The idea that a supermarket and the USDA would partner to develop a breed of chicken seems odd today, but the A&P was no ordinary supermarket chain.

In the age of Wal-Mart and Target, A&P looks almost quaint, but in the history of food retailing, A&P was the dominant force for many decades, having created the model of high-volume, low-cost food marketing. Marc Levinson’s The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America tells the story of how a small tea-importing and animal hides company grew starting in the 1860s into the largest retailer in the world, reaching annual sales of $1 billion and owning over 16,000 stores nationwide by the end of the 1920s.

Through vertical integration and a policy of demanding volume discounts from manufacturers and wholesalers, A&P drove thousands of Mom and Pop retailers out of business. In 1945, the U.S. Justice Department won a conviction of A&P for criminal restraint of trade. The conviction had little impact on A&P’s business, but the giant supermarket chain took every opportunity during the trial and appeal to improve its image through press releases and public service work. The “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest was part of A&P’s damage control.

Farmers and breeders from across the country took part, submitting eggs for hatching at specially built facilities where the chicks were hatched and raised in controlled conditions on a standard diet. The chicks were closely tracked and monitored for weight gain, health and appearance. After 12 weeks, the birds were slaughtered weighed and judged for edible meat yield. In 1946 and 1947, a series of state and regional contests took place and from them 40 finalists were chosen to compete for the national title of Chicken of Tomorrow. In 1948, and again in 1951, Arbor Acres White Rocks won in the purebred category. The white feathered Arbor Acres birds were preferred to the higher preforming dark feathered Red Cornish crosses from the Vantress Hatchery. Eventually the two breeds were crossed to become the Arbor Acre breed that came to dominate the genetic stock of chicken worldwide.

Arbor Acres was run by Franks Saglio, an Italian immigrant who grew fruits and vegetables in Glastonbury, Connecticut on a small family farm. His son, Henry, started raising chickens for local sales. It was Henry’s birds that eventually won the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, from which the family went on to build a national breeding business which sent parent stock to all the major broiler companies in the country. In addition to supplying Arbor Acres breeding stock, the company also developed techniques and facilities to promote the best performance of the birds. Driven by processors’ demands for more and cheaper chicken, the broiler industry went through a rapid vertical integration process with hatcheries, growers, feed mills and processors all merged into larger and larger commercial farms. The Saglio family helped found the National Chicken Council, the chicken industry’s public relations and lobbying organization.

Arbor Acres, the International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC) and Nelson Rockefeller

Here is where the story takes a big turn. In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller bought Arbor Acres and took it global through his company, International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC).

Nelson Rockefeller left government service the same year A&P held the first Chicken of Tomorrow contest, and in 1947 set up two new organizations to demonstrate his alternative approach to President Truman’s Point IV Program for technical assistance to developing countries. The American International Association for Economic and Social Development (AIA) was Rockefeller’s policy arm and IBEC was the business arm. Called by some the Rich Neighbor Policy, Rockefeller’s private development companies initially brought U.S. capital and technology to places like Brazil and Venezuela to jump start modern consumer capitalism. IBEC began with $3 million from Nelson Rockefeller, and $21 million from Standard Oil. IBEC’s investments included poultry production, supermarkets, housing, agribusiness and textiles.

In addition to demonstrating that U.S. capital and American know-how could create a thriving middle class in places ruled by autocrats and populated by the  poor and illiterate, IBEC had a Cold War agenda as well. As Nelson Rockefeller was known to say, "it's hard to be a Communist with a full belly.” Many of IBEC’s operations were located in countries where Standard Oil was pumping oil and nationalist and peasant uprisings were occurring.

IBEC’s model undercut peasant production of food, replacing it with a capital-intensive system. To make this system work required, on the production side, a steady supply of feed grain, and on the consumer-side, a way to distribute and sell the meat that looked more like A&P than traditional open air markets and bodegas. In 1949, IBEC formed a joint venture with Cargill to build grain elevators in Argentina. Cargill had been hoping to enter the Latin American market and the IBEC partnership opened the door, first in Argentina and then in Venezuela and Brazil. Today, Cargill has over $8 billion invested in Latin America and 25,000 employees. By 1956, according to an IBEC consultant reporting on supermarcados in Venezuela, it could “truthfully be said that the modern supermarkets are displacing the old fashioned ‘bodegas.’” (In 1969, 14 of the 17 IBEC supermarkets in Buenos Aires were burnt to the ground by nationalists when Nelson Rockefeller came to visit.)

With IBEC’s purchase of Arbor Acres, the AA genetic stock—as it is known in the trade—went global, starting in Latin America and moving quickly to Africa, Asia and Europe. In Asia, one IBEC employee, John Rogers, founder of Rogers Enterprise International, setup Arbor Acres joint ventures with leading agribusiness companies, including Charoen Pokphand Foods with operations in Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia and India; the San Miguel Corporation in the Philippines; and Mitsui and Co. in Japan. Still today, 50 percent of the chicken raised in China comes from the Arbor Acres genetic stock.

Not all of IBEC’s development projects were as successful as Arbor Acres, and by the 1970s IBEC started to divest of it holdings. In 1980, when it merged with Booker McConnell Limited of Great Britain, IBEC changed its name to Arbor Acres. Since then, Arbor Acres has changed hands several times and is currently owned by Avigen, a chicken breeder selling three brands of chicken—Arbor Acres, Ross and Indian River in 130 countries worldwide.

What do you get when you combine a family farm, a supermarket contest and a global corporation? It is a bad joke, and even more, it misses the real question we have to answer:  What have we lost to the creation of industrial chicken? 

Let’s start with the chickens. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) there has been a marked decline in the past half century of farm livestock breeds. “Up to 30% of global mammalian and avian livestock breeds (i.e., 1,200 to 1,500 breeds) are currently at risk of being lost and cannot be replaced.” A Purdue University study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that 50 percent or more of ancestral chicken breeds have been lost and that the greatest decline in chicken diversity took place in the 1950s with the introduction of industrial chicken production.

The thousands of farmers who took part in the Chicken of Tomorrow contests disappeared even more quickly than the breeds. They were replaced by ever larger chicken operations managed by farmers with little control over their farms. The remaining farmers are faced with signing bad contracts with immense transnational chicken processors that control every aspect of the process, from cage to carcass.

Despite the best efforts of the breeders to develop disease-resistant birds, the combination of chickens bred to gain weight and muscle rapidly, plus living in very confined cages, has led to sicker birds requiring more and more antibiotics. The declining diversity of breeds has also contributed to less resistance to disease. The use of antibiotics to keep battery-raised chickens healthy has contributed to widespread bacterial resistance to antibiotics, creating a public health crisis. 

Everybody knows that if you can’t describe the flavor  

When Henry Saglio died in 2003, according to his New York Times obituary, he was the “father” of the poultry industry. In 2000, Henry formed a new company called Pureline Genetics because of his growing concerned about the use of antibiotics in chicken production. Pureline’s drug-free breeds couldn’t penetrate the market, and by 2009 was sold to Centurion Poultry in Lexington, Georgia.

We are still eating the Chicken of Tomorrow, but it is time for a new contest, a contest not for a new Chicken of Tomorrow, but rather for a new kind of agriculture, one that is less focused on corporate profits and more focused on producing strong healthy farms and food.

For more, see another video about how the Chicken of Tomorrow contest launched Arbor Acres and industrial chicken production.

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