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POULTRY. Poultry are domesticated birds raised for food: chickens (including Cornish game hens and poussins), turkeys, ducks, and geese, plus minor species such as squab (young pigeons) and ostrich. Game birds such as quail and Canada geese can also be prepared in much the same ways, although their meat is tougher than that of birds raised on farms. Chickens and ducks are among the most widely distributed food animals in the world and are part of nearly every major cuisine.

Poultry were the last major group of food animals to be domesticated. Humans likely began by raiding the nests of wild birds to steal their eggs, just as nonhuman predators do. Eventually the birds themselves were caught and kept in confinement, or, when thoroughly domesticated, allowed to range around the farmstead or village to find their own food.

Chicken, in particular, has had an increase in popularity in the United States in recent years; according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sales climbed from 39 pounds per capita in 1970 to 77 pounds per capita in 2000. The surge in chicken's popularity is attributable partly to its low fat content as compared to beef. Three-and-one-half ounces (one hundred grams) of roasted chicken breast with its skin removed has only 120 calories and 1.5 grams of fat, while the same serving of cooked sirloin steak has 170 calories and 6 grams of fat.

Also propelling chicken toward the center of the nation's plate is its versatility and convenience. Chicken is convenient to prepare and less likely to be ruined by overcooking than the competition. Chicken has become a kitchen favorite for cooks who are both pressed for time and somewhat inexpert at cooking.

Cost is also a major factor in the rise of poultry's popularity. In constant dollars, the wholesale price of a whole chicken dropped 50 percent from 1978 to 2000, while the price of skinless, boneless breast dropped 70 percent.

In contrast to chicken and turkey, duck, goose, squab, and other minor species are expensive and are served mainly on special occasions in the home or in high-end restaurants or restaurants specializing in ethnic cuisine. Peking duck is a mainstay of Chinese cookery, for example.


The most prevalent of the domestic fowl worldwide, the chicken is descended from the Red Jungle Fowl, a bird whose native territory stretches from east India to Malaysia. It is not clear exactly where the bird was first domesticated, but it has been raised by humans throughout its range since ancient times. Polynesian explorers took the chicken across the Pacific as far as Hawaii. Chickens were exported from India to China as early as the fourteenth century B.C.E. and spread to the Near East via the trade routes, and thence to Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Domestic fowl are not mentioned in the Old Testament, but the ancient Egyptians kept fowl and developed large ovens capable of incubating thousands of eggs, indicating that they had large flocks. The Greeks had chickens by the fourth century B.C.E., and many a family in ancient Athens kept a hen to produce eggs. The Romans took up the bird and carried it throughout their empire and beyond; the Germanic and Celtic tribes north of the Roman frontier had chickens before the Christian era. Both Greeks and Romans gave chickens a prominent place in their cuisine and recorded elaborate recipes for cooking them. Poultry shops were so well-established in England by the fourteenth century that their proprietors prevailed upon the authorities to prohibit country people from bringing poultry into the city to sell in the streets in competition with them. Medieval and Renaissance banquets featured chickens along with other fowl: Pope Pius V (d. 1572) gave a banquet that included chicken pietwo chickens to each pieand spit-roasted quails and pigeons.

A hen in her prime will produce from 100 to 250 eggs per year, a remarkable output for the size of the animal, so the chicken has always been kept more for its egg-laying capability than for its value as meat. Since a hen will lay eggs whether they are fertilized or not, and a single male bird can adequately service a large number of females to ensure reproduction of the flock, most of the male birds are superfluous to an egg-laying flock. They are, however, easily castrated when young, and the resulting birds, known as capons, grow fat and tender. From ancient times until quite recently, capons were the best choice for roasting, with older hens sent to the stew pot. Young male birds, known as cockerels, although smaller than capons, were also available for roasting or other forms of cooking.

Production of birds for their meat has traditionally been a sideline to the egg-laying business. Not until the 1920s were large flocks of chickens raised specifically for their meat, which are called broilers or fryers (the terms are interchangeable). Today about 97 percent of the chicken found in a U.S. supermarket consists of broilerfryers, with most of the balance consisting of stewing hens (older birds) and a few Cornish game hens. The capon, once a prized dish, is now rare.

The chicken has a short generation span, since the female reaches sexual maturity in about a year. Consequently, the development of different breeds can occur rapidly. Poultry keepers bred birds for desirable characteristics, which traditionally included prolific egg production. The Leghorn is the longtime champion of layers. More recent breeding has emphasized abundant meat production. Specialized breeding companies cross different breeds to attain the right mix of desirable characteristics.


The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo ) is native to the Americas and inhabited northern Mexico and what is now the eastern United States when Columbus arrived. All of the domesticated turkey breeds descended from this hardy bird, which was domesticated by the Aztecs and other Native Americans. Montezuma himself dined on turkeys, ducks, quails, and other birds, according to a Spanish eyewitness. Early in the sixteenth century, the Spaniards took the bird home, where it began a rapid spread through Europe. People were accustomed to eating large birdsswans and peacocks had graced noble tables since ancient timesand the turkey provided an abundance of meat. In this respect, the turkey was very different from the chicken, since the turkey has been prized chiefly as a source of meat rather than eggs.

The name given the bird by Europeans reflected mass confusion about its origins and perhaps a similarity to another bird, the guinea fowl, which had recently been reintroduced into Europe after an absence dating to the fall of Rome. The guinea fowl was called an "India chicken" by many, apparently because it reached Europe from the east and was thought to have originated in India, although in fact it is from Africa. When the turkey showed up, it looked like a bigger version of the same bird and was dubbed the "bird of India" in nearly every language: "coq d'Inde," cock of India (later dinde ), in French, "indianische Henn" in German, and variations on the same in other European languages. Eventually the turkey took sole possession of the "India" name and the guinea fowl was renamed after the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa. The only major exception was England, where the bird was called the "turkie cock" (or hen). This may reflect a belief that the bird came from Turkey, since many exotic products, edible and otherwise, had passed through the eastern Mediterranean on their way to western Europe. A more specific theory is based on the fact that English trade to that region was dominated by the Company of Merchant Adventurers Trading to the Levant, popularly known as the Turkey Merchants. Officers of the company reportedly stopped in Spain and picked up some of the birds on their way back to England, and the bird was named after them.

Production of poultry meat and eggs, leading nations, 2001
In metric t ons
Nation Poultry meat Chicken meat Turkey meat Duck meat Goose meat Primary eggs*
WORLD 70,358,813 60,258,645 5,085,889 2,936,687 2,058,969 56,594,078
United States 16,747,600 14,210,000 2,485,000 52,600 Neg. 5,080,000
China 13,286,850 9,401,030 1,990 2,009,980 1,873,850 23,354,520
European Union (15) 8,852,099 6,632,852 1,860,960 343,112 14,075 5,303,441
Brazil 6,394,850 6,222,700 165,000 7,150 Neg. 1,582,700
France 2,077,100 1,100,000 735,000 235,000 6,000 1,047,000
Mexico 1,945,038 1,897,546 27,242 20,250 Neg. 1,881,645
United Kingdom 1,561,700 1,257,500 256,000 45,800 2,400 644,751
Thailand 1,366,500 1,260,000 Neg. 105,000 1,500 810,000
Japan 1,180,012 1,180,000 12 Neg. Neg. 2,526,000
Italy 1,156,000 816,000 340,000 Neg. Neg. 707,000
Canada 1,092,300 943,000 141,000 7,400 900 362,800
Spain 1,034,000 1,012,000 22,000 Neg. Neg. 563,700
*Table eggs of all species, including chicken, duck, and goose.
Neg.: Negligible production
The production of poultry meat and eggs constitutes a large industry worldwide. Nearly every country produces chicken meat and eggs; turkey is popular largely in Europe, North America, and Brazil; duck meat production is found largely in China and Europe; and goose meat is largely Chinese. The United States is the leading producer of poultry products, particularly chicken (14 million metric tons produced in 2001) and turkey (two and a half million tons), in both of which it leads the world. China is second in chicken production with about nine million tons, and dominates the world in goose meat and duck meat production. In fact, 91 percent of all the goose meat produced in the world, and 68 percent of the duck meat, is produced in China.
Other major countries in chicken meat production include Brazil, France, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Thailand, while the leading turkey producers after the United States are France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, and Hungary. France and Thailand are the leading duck meat producers after China, followed by Viet Nam, the United States, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom. The goose meat industry is very small outside China, with the biggest countries being Hungary, Egypt, Madagascar, and Poland.
China produces more than 23 million metric tons of eggs, or more than forty percent of the world's supply, which includes goose and duck eggs as well as chicken eggs. The United States is next with five million tons, followed by Japan with two-and-a-half million tons and Russia, India, and Mexico with about two million tons each. Japan is the leading consumer of eggs on a per capita basis, with China in second place. In the United States, per capita egg consumption has dropped in recent years, largely in response to concern about the cholesterol content of eggs.
SOURCE: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Statistical Databases; U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service.

Whatever the reason for its odd name, the turkey seems to have taken Europe by storm. It arrived in Spain around 1524, was mentioned by Rabelais in 1548, and was served at a royal wedding feast in France in 1570. In England, the bird was established even sooner, being mentioned in the sumptuary laws of 1541. Turkeys could be raised by peasants and by the turn of the seventeenth century were being husbanded throughout Europe. The Pilgrims recognized the local turkeys when they settled in Massachusetts and learned that the Native American name for the bird was amazingly close to their own. The natives called it a "furkee."

Ducks and Geese

Ducks and geese are distributed worldwide and were trapped and domesticated by humans in antiquity for both eggsespecially duck eggsand their meat. Ducks were probably domesticated before geese, and both were certainly domesticated in most of the world long before chickens. Ducks were raised in China two thousand years b.c.e. The Incas of Peru kept ducks, and the Spanish brought home what became known as the Muscovy duck (continuing the tradition of naming birds for lands far from their own).

Ancient peoples in Europe and Asia tamed mallard ducks, which were the foundation of most breeds of domestic duck, such as the Pekin (or Peking) of China, the Aylesbury of England, and the Rouen of France. Most ducks consumed are slaughtered at a young age and thus termed ducklings; mature ducks are tough and are used mainly in processed products.

In the United States, modern production began when a clipper ship brought three Pekin ducks and a drake from China in 1873. All of today's Pekins are direct descendents of these pioneers. Strains of the Pekin were used to produce the Long Island Duckling, which became the most desirable breed. Production of these birds in the United States eventually moved largely to the Midwest, but only birds actually raised on Long Island for at least seven days and processed there may be labeled "Long Island Duckling." Birds that are otherwise essentially identical, but raised in Indiana or other states, are labeled "White Pekin Duckling."

Regardless of where it is raised, the White Pekin is a tender and juicy bird and is the most popular choice for the table. The Muscovy has a stronger flavor than the White Pekin. The White Pekin and the Muscovy have been crossed to produce the Moulard, which is raised mainly for the sake of its liver for foie gras. (Foie gras is a delicacy consisting of duck or goose liver that has been enlarged to many times its normal size by excessive feeding of the birds. In Europe, where goose is preferred, the bird is "crammed" with feed through a funnel put down its throat. [See photo on page 127.] In the United States, ducks are encouraged to overeat but are not crammed.) The familiar, green-headed Mallard is both raised on farms and hunted in its wild state. It is smaller and tougher than the White Pekin and tends to be quite greasy. Ducks are considered "red-meat" birds, and the breast meat when fully cooked will be pink, which in chickens and turkeys would be a sign of undercooking.

Geese have been domesticated since ancient times in many parts of the world, but the Greylag goose of Europe, which is still found in the wild, is the ancestor of most of the domesticated breeds in existence today. The all-white Emden and the all-gray Toulouse are the two most popular breeds in the United States today; many African and White Chinese are also raised. The Chinese goose is descended from the swan goose of Asia rather than from the Greylag.

Goose production is a small industry in the United States, representing only two-tenths of 1 percent of poultry production, and might virtually disappear were it not for the fact that geese also produce down, which is much in demand for its insulating properties. Down is used in ski jackets, comforters, pillows, sleeping bags, and other cold-weather gear.

Both Greeks and Egyptians kept geese and crammed them with grain to fatten them and enlarge their livers. The Romans apparently adopted geese from the Gauls; Pliny wrote of flocks of geese being driven to Rome from what is now Picardy. The goose was the most prized domestic fowl in Europe for hundreds of years after the heyday of Rome, and the Gauls and their descendents, the French, became the acknowledged masters of the art of creating foie gras by force-feeding the birds. The goose became a holiday bird in much of Europe and is considered an alternative to the turkey in the United States. The meat is all dark and has the consistency of roast beef when properly cooked.


Squabs are young pigeons that have never flown, usually slaughtered at four weeks old. If a squab is slaughtered much after four weeks or after it has begun to fly, the muscles will have hardened and the meat will not be as tender as when the bird was in the nest.

Pigeons are widely spread around the world and have been raised for their meat since antiquity. Pigeon keeping was widespread in ancient Egypt; by the first century b.c.e., dovecotes with one thousand nesting places were common. The design of the dovecotes, using earthen jars as nesting places, survived into modern times. Twenty thousand pigeons were served as a feast given by an Assyrian king in the ninth century B.C.E. Pigeons were popular in ancient Greece, Rome, and during medieval times.

Squab is considered a delicacy around the world today. In the United States, squabs are available mainly through specialty food shops or in ethnic and high-end restaurants.

Production and Life Cycle

All the major forms of poultry are produced in similar although not identical systems. The model in the United States is the highly efficient broiler chicken sector, which produces the vast majority of the poultry products consumed by Americans. Turkeys and other forms of poultry are raised under conditions that are similar to those of chickens.

The chicken industry was localized, with entrepreneurs buying surplus chickens from egg operations and backyard flocks for the city markets, until early in the twenthieth century, when more organized, long-distance shipping of live poultry commenced. New York and other cities received rail cars of live birds that were distributed to butcher shops or slaughtered and dressed at processing plants for distribution. In the 1920s, farmers discovered that large flocks of chickens could be raised specifically for their value as meat. These farmers needed regular batches of chicks, supplied by large-scale hatcheries, and feed, which they got from commercial feed mills. The hatcheries and mills typically had better access to capital and marketing channels than farmers, and they formed the core of the all-purpose companies that dominate the business today. In the mature industry, a single company typically handles the entire life cycle of a bird, including hatching, feed formulation and production, processing, and marketing. This business model is known as "vertical integration," and there are about fifty such companies in existence in the United States (as of 2001). Breeding of the animals for desirable characteristics is handled by either the integrated company itself or by one of a several specialized breeding companies. Once hatched, the birds are typically taken to privately owned farms, where they are raised to market weight by farmers working under contract to the company.

Production of turkeys is somewhat less centralized than the chicken business, although the turkey industry has been moving in the direction of greater integration. The duck industry is very similar to the chicken model. Most of the squabs in the country are processed and marketed by a cooperative. The goose industry is small and integrated.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of a broiler begins with a specialized breeding flocks, where roosters and hens produce fertile eggs that are collected every day and taken to a hatchery, where thousands of eggs are kept in each incubator under carefully controlled conditions of temperature and humidity. The chicks hatch out on the twenty-first day and are taken to the farm where they will be raised for six to seven weeks. The typical growout facility is a barn-like, one-story structure about forty feet wide and four hundred feet long, which contains about twenty thousand birds. The trend in recent years has been to even larger houses holding up to thirty-three thousand birds. The birds have the run of the building, as cages are not used in broiler production.

Feed is made largely from corn and soybeans with the addition of animal fats for energy, animal protein, amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. Chickens eat almost continuously, pausing to digest each meal before going back to the feeder for more.

When the birds reach market weight of about five and a half pounds, they are collected and taken to the processing plant where they are stunned, killed, defeathered, eviscerated, inspected for wholesomeness by personnel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, chilled, and either packed for shipment or, more typically, sent to another plant to be cut into pieces, deboned, and processed into a wide variety of products. The finished weight of a whole bird is usually about three and a half pounds, with birds destined for the fast-food market being typically smaller than birds being sold at retail.


Poultry companies market their products through supermarket chains, restaurant chains, and independent distributors. The process is highly organized and efficient. Unlike red meat, in which an in-store butcher handles the final cutup, poultry is usually packaged at the plant and shipped to stores ready for sale, with computerized scales at the processing plant weighing the packages and applying the price set by the retailer.

Approximately half the chicken consumed in the country is sold through supermarkets and other retail outlets while half is sold through fast food and other restaurants, cafeteria, and other food service outlets.

Poultry Health

Chickens and other poultry are subject to a wide variety of diseases whether they are kept indoors or not. They are normally vaccinated against certain diseases while they are still in the egg and then again as chicks. One of the most prevalent problems is colonization of the chicken's gut by microscopic, parasitic animals known as coccidia. Most producers, even "organic" or "free range" ones, add chemical compounds to the chicken feed to control coccidia. Poultry flocks are monitored by the farmer and by company representatives for signs of other diseases, which, if they begin to claim more than a certain number of victims, will be treated with antibiotics administered through the feed or water. Some antibiotics, when used in the feed at low levels over a period of time, also result in measurable increases in the bird's weight. The exact mechanism for this "growth promotion" is not known, but poultry experts believe that the antibiotics eliminate organisms in the chicken's gut that would otherwise compete for nutrition. The practice of using antibiotics for purposes other than treating disease is somewhat controversial, and some experts in human health object to it on the grounds that low-level use of antibiotics, some of which are also used in human medicine, can promote the rise of bacteria that are resistant to the drugs. These can be passed to humans either on food products or by entering the environment and could create infections in humans that could be resistant to antibiotic therapy. The National Research Council has found that "there is a link" between the use of antibiotics in food animals and antibiotic resistant infections in humans and recommended further study.


Federal law prohibits producers of chickens and other poultry from giving artificial or added hormones to their animals. Producers are allowed to give only those pharmaceuticals or additives that are on the Food and Drug Administration's approved list, and there are no hormones on the list for chickens or other poultry raised for their meat. It would be impractical to give hormones anyway, since they cannot be given in the feed and have to be repeatedly injected as the animal grows, virtually an impossibility in a flock of twenty thousand birds or more.

Alternative Production and Processing Systems

Some have criticized the mainstream industry for its style of mass production, confinement of the animals, and use of antibiotics. The "free range" style of production is intended to address these concerns. In a "free range" system, the birds have access to a pen outside the growout house. Some producers provide a pen as large as the growout house itself, while others provide a much smaller fenced area. The pen gives the chickens the opportunity for exercise, sunlight, and fresh air. Chickens will not necessarily take advantage of the opportunity, however, if the food and water are located only inside the house. Many "free-range" birds thus do little actual ranging.

Since chickens will peck at anything in search of food, a small pen can be quickly denuded of vegetation. Some small-scale producers address this problem by confining the chickens in a covered, portable pen that is moved each day to a different plot of grass; this is called "pastured poultry." Few if any producers will actually turn chickens loose to fend for themselves, although some turkey producers will do so in an area in which forage is available, such as an orchard, in which the turkeys can feed on fallen fruit. "Free range" chickens generally cost considerably more than standard chickens, and they represent only a small portion of total productionprobably less than 1 percent.

"Organic" production is another attempt to differentiate the product from those of large-scale producers. The term was used for years on a wide variety of food products without a consistent nationwide definition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture promulgated regulations in 2000, to take effect in 2002, which prohibit the use of the term "organic" unless the production and processing of the product is consistent with the regulation. A qualifying product can carry a "USDA Organic" label. Poultry labeled "organic" must be raised on feed made from organically grown grain that cannot contain animal byproducts; cannot be given antibiotics or anti-parasiticals; and must be given access to the outdoors, among other requirements.

Kosher Processing and Specialized Labeling

"Free range" and "gourmet" chickens are processed in a manner that is essentially identical to standard chickens and are killed by high-speed mechanical devices. Kosher chickens, however, are slaughtered manually by rabbis, not by machine, and are soaked in salt water to draw out the remaining blood to meet the requirements of Jewish law. As a result, Kosher chickens are generally more expensive than standard birds.

In France, the national ministry of agriculture and fisheries operates a program called the "Label Rouge," or "Red Label," which is intended to recognize higher-quality products. Products bearing the red label must employ more traditional methods of production than more standardized products. France offers the red label to qualifying producers of chicken, guinea fowl, turkey, capons, duck, and geese, as well as other animals.


Poultry has long figured in human symbolism and legend. Geese supposedly saved ancient Rome from a surprise attack in the fourth century b.c.e. by cackling loudly when the invaders tried to sneak up on the Capitol. Pigeons were offered as sacrifices by the Hebrews of the Bible. The sixteenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Eldera great fan of fantastic-looking animalsused the turkey as a symbol of envy in his series of paintings on the seven deadly sins. But the domestic fowl most often used as a symbol is the ordinary chicken.

In ancient Greece, chickens were offered in sacrifice to the god of medicine, Aesculapius, to protect against disease, to thank the god for recovery, or to prepare for imminent death. Aristotle conducted the first known systematic study of embryology by opening hen's eggs at each day of incubation. Less scientific ancients used the birds for magic, sorcery, and divination.

The chicken has always been one of the most familiar domesticated animals since almost any family could afford to keep a hen, and chickens were kept in the city as well as the countryside. Humans therefore had abundant opportunity to observe the chicken at close range. They could hardly help but notice the insatiable sexual appetite of the male bird, which can copulate up to thirty times a day in his prime. The traditional term for the roosterthe cockwas given in slang to the male sexual organ, and the upright, strutting posture of the male, and his domineering behavior toward the females, seemed to symbolize traditional male supremacy.

The rooster's habit of crowing loudly at dawn has made it for centuries the symbol of awakening. The most famous example is the prediction by Jesus of Nazareth that his chief apostle, Simon Peter, would deny knowing him three times before the cock crowed twice. When Peter heard the crowing and realized the prediction had come true, "he went out and wept bitterly." The rooster's role as a herald has continued to this day. A rooster figures prominently in a tapestry hanging in the United Nations headquarters in New York that commemorates the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, presumably as a symbol of the world's need to awaken to the danger of uncontrolled technology.

Food Safety

Chickens, turkeys, and other types of poultry are produced on farms and processed in clean but not sterile plants, so their meat can carry microorganisms that potentially harmful to humans. For example, approximately 10 percent of raw chickens carry Salmonella, which can cause illness and even death in humans. Improved processing technology and stricter government regulations have improved the situation considerably in recent years, but consumers should always handle raw meat and poultry with care.

To ensure that poultry products are safe to eat and to avoid contaminating other foods with the bacteria that may be carried on raw poultry, the cook should keep four basic points in mind:

  1. Clean: Keep working surfaces clean. Wash cutting boards after cutting raw poultry and before using them for other foods, such as vegetables. Wash the hands before touching other foods. Wash utensils in hot, soapy water.
  2. Cook: Cook foods to the recommend temperature. Proper cooking deactivates bacteria and renders the food safe to eat.
  3. Chill: Bacteria such as Salmonella do not grow well at cold temperatures, so prompt refrigeration at 40°F or below will help control the growth of bacteria on raw foods. After poultry is cooked, in order to control the growth of molds, yeasts, and spoilage organisms, it should not be left out at room temperature for more than two hours. Listeria is an exception to the rule, however, since it will grow at refrigerator temperatures. Listeria is sometimes found on products that were cooked at the plant, such as hot dogs and lunch meat. Vulnerable individualschiefly pregnant women, small children, the elderly, and immuno-compromised peopleshould reheat such foods until they are steaming hot before consuming them to eliminate the risk of Listeria contamination.
  4. Avoid cross-contamination: Poultry juice can contain millions of bacterial cells. Prevent poultry juice from dripping onto other foods by overwrapping the packages if necessary in plastic wrap.


Poultry comes in a dizzying array of forms ranging from a package of chicken wings weighing two ounces each to whole turkey weighing twenty pounds or more. The consumer can buy products based on specific meal plans or based on cost consideration, for example, stocking up on boneless chicken breast when it is on sale. In determining quantities, keep in mind that the edible yield from boneless products is far greater than from bone-in; in fact, while boneless chicken costs considerably more than bone-in, the price difference almost disappears when the bones are excluded. On the other hand, much of the weight of ducks and geese consists of fat that will drain off when the bird is cooked. As a rule of thumb, four ounces of skinless, boneless chicken will serve one adult, while a whole chicken will serve approximately one person per pound. For a whole turkey, figure on one pound per person. A whole duck or goose, which has less meat, bigger bones, and more fat than turkey, will serve three persons, or four if there are enough side dishes, while one squab is an individual serving.

Classes of Chickens

Chickens are classified primarily by the size, weight, and age of the bird when processed. Chickens are produced to meet specific requirements of the customer, which can be a retail outlet, fast food chain, or institutional buyer, among others. The weights given here are "ready to cook," that is, eviscerated or "dressed."

Chicken raised for meat products; of either sex; usually six to seven weeks old; often labeled "tender young chicken."
Less than twenty-four days of age and about one pound or less.
Cornish Game Hen
Less than thirty days of age and about two pounds.
Fast-food Size Broiler
two pounds four ounces to three pounds two ounces, (mostly two pounds six ounces to two pounds fourteen ounces), usually cutup, without necks and giblets, may have tail and leaf fat removed, and less than forty-two days of age.
3's and Up
three to four and three-quarter pounds, usually with neck and giblets for retail grocery; whole, cut-up, parts, and forty to forty-five days of age. Typical retail size.
Broiler Roaster
five to six pounds, hens usually fifty-five days of age.
Broilers for Deboning
five to six pounds, males usually forty-seven to fifty-six days of age. Deboned for nuggets, patties, strips, and similar boneless products.
Heavy Young Broiler Roaster
six to eight pounds, sold fresh or frozen through retail grocery, both whole and parts, less than ten weeks of age. Typical "roaster."
Castrated male broilers weighing seven to nine pounds, and about fourteen to fifteen weeks of age. Considered to be very flavorful. Stewing Hen or Heavy Hen breeder hens that are no longer commercially productive for laying hatching eggs, usually five to five-and-one-half pounds, about fifteen months of age, used for cooked, diced, or pulled meat. Sometimes sold whole at retail for use in homemade soup. While tougher than younger birds, the stewing hen has developed a deeper flavor.


The male bird, or "tom," tends to be bigger than the hen, although there is no noticeable difference between the two in the quality of their meat. Almost all the turkeys in the supermarket are young turkeys, slaughtered at about fourteen weeks of age for hens and eighteen weeks for toms.

Turkey breast is even leaner than chicken and is very widely used in sandwich meat and other delicatessen-type products, as well as sold fresh in the meat case. Turkey dark meat is also widely used in hot dogs, bologna, and other processed meat products. Whole birds are available year round but are especially popular as the main course at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Turkey parts are increasingly popular both year round and at the holidays: whole or half breasts, tenderloins, and legs.


Poultry is generally sold with a "sell-by" date on the package, which, for chicken, is typically ten to fourteen days from processing. Poultry should be cooked or frozen within a few days of purchase to maintain its quality. Fresh poultry should be kept in its original wrapping and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If the package is leaking fluid, it should be overwrapped with plastic or aluminum foil.

Frozen poultry will keep six months or more in the freezer set at 0°F. Frozen whole birds or parts can be defrosted in the refrigerator, which can take twenty-four hours or more, or in cold water, which should be kept running or changed every 30 minutes. A whole turkey should be defrosted in water because defrosting in the refrigerator takes too long. Whole chickens and all types of parts can be defrosted in the microwave, but a very low power setting should be used and caution exercised to ensure that the product does not begin to cook during the defrosting.

A Note on Doneness.

Poultry parts reach the desired state of doneness at different internal temperatures. Boneless chicken breast cooked on an outdoor grill can be cooked without reaching 150°F (even though 160°F is usually given as the minimum temperature that breast meat should reach). Yet drumsticks, because of their dark meat and higher fat content, will not be done until they register 180°F. Bones conduct heat, so when taking the temperature of a part or a whole bird, do not let the thermometer rest against a bone.

Generally, boneless white meat such as chicken or turkey breast should be cooked to 160°F, bone-in parts usually need to reach 170°F; and dark meat should hit 180°F.

Poultry will usually be safe to eat before it is done. Any food is safe to eat at 160°F because bacteria are destroyed at temperatures over 140°F. One exception: it is impossible to make spoiled food safe to eat by heating it because spoilage organisms create toxins; even if the bacteria are destroyed, the toxins remain. Spoiled food cannot be fixed by cooking and must be discarded.

Methods of Preparation: Chicken

As befits its reputation as the most versatile of meats, chicken can be prepared in a host of different ways. Here are the principal methods of preparation and the chicken products most appropriate for them.

Roasting. A whole roast chicken is a magnificent sight, browned to perfection and rich in the promise of tender, juicy meat. Because of its small size relative, say, to a turkey, roasting a chicken takes only a couple of hours and is perfect for a Sunday afternoon dinner. Be sure to remove the giblets (heart and liver) from the cavity if present and discard unless you intend to make gravy with them. The chicken may be stuffed with any type of bread-based stuffing, although this increases cooking time. Some experts recommend cooking the stuffing in a sauce on the stove. To ensure even cooking and present a tidy appearance in the finished product, it is best to truss the chicken, that is, to use kitchen string or other clean white string to ties its legs over the cavity and secure its wings to the body.

Preheat the oven to 325°F and place the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan or a deep baking dish. Use of the rack will keep the chicken from sitting in its own grease.

Roast for about an hour, basting occasionally with the pan juices. The chicken is done when the internal temperature reaches 180°F on a thermometer inserted deep into the thigh without touching bone. Let stand 20 minutes to allow the juices to settle before carving.

Baking. Roasting and baking are essentially the same thing, the difference merely being that a whole chicken is roasted while parts are baked. Any poultry part can be baked, but the method is most appropriate for legs, thigh, and drumsticks. Preheat the oven to 400°F, place the chicken part in a lightly oiled roasting pan or in a deep baking dish, and place in the oven for 40 to 45 minutes. Use of a rack will help keep dark meat parts from picking up too much melted fat; it is not necessary for breast meat.

Broiling. In broiling, meats are placed several inches under the heat. This works well for all chicken parts, but especially for boneless or bone-in breasts. Preheat the broiler and broil the breasts for approximately 15 minutes per side. Bone-in breasts are placed six to eight inches from the heat; boneless breast lie flat and can be placed closer. Cook the rib side of bone-in breasts, or the rough side of boneless breasts, first, and then finish with the skin side of skin-on breasts or the smooth side of skinless, boneless breasts.

Sauté. Boneless parts such as breast or thigh can be cooked in a pan on top of the stove in a little liquid, which can be chicken stock, wine, butter, olive oil, or some combination. The trick is to brown the chicken on both sides before reducing the heat to cook it through. Boneless breast cooked in butter and olive oil and seasoned with lemon and rosemary is a delicious dish. It can be made even more delicate by slicing the breast portion in two with the knife held parallel to the counter, resulting in two breast fillets. A thin piece of breast will cook in just a few minutes on each side.

Fried. Fried chicken is a mainstay of southern cooking, although Southerners clearly did not invent it; a cookbook published in England in the eighteenth century included a recipe for fried chicken that could be used today. Fried chicken has fallen somewhat into disfavor, along with many other types of fried foods, due to its fat content and reputation for clogging arteries. However, the best fried chicken is not greasy and does not have exceptionally high added fat. The key seems to be to keep the frying oil very hot so that the skin of the chicken is sealed quickly, thus keeping the liquid fat out of the meat. Oil tends to lose its frying ability with use, so either start with plenty or keep heating up new batches of oil. Drumsticks and wings are the parts traditionally considered most suited to frying, but breasts and thighs will do just as well.

Southern cooks often recommend soaking the raw chicken in buttermilk and refrigerating for several hours. Then let the excess milk drain off, dredge the chicken parts in seasoned flour, and dunk into hot oil in a deep pan or heavy skillet. Many a cook has found the skillet lid a handy shield against spattering grease. Keep the oil at about 350°F until all the parts are added, then reduce the temperature to around 320°F and cook 10 to 12 minutes per side or until the juices run clear. (Five minutes per side for boneless breast.) The chicken is done when it turns golden brown. Drain on paper towels to get rid of as much grease as possible.

When frying wings, split them at the joints and discard the outermost and least meaty part, which is known as the "flapper." The meaty first joint is known as the "drummette." Wing portions make excellent appetizers.

Soups and stews. The stewpot was traditionally the destination of older and tougher birds that needed long, slow cooking to make them tender enough to eat. Old, tough birds are hard to find these days, although the chicken companies will sometimes market played-out hens in the dead of winter precisely for this purpose. Newer soup recipes, such as those based on Asian dishes, are light and delicate and perfectly suited to the young and tender birds that dominate the market.

Grilled. Chicken has ridden the wave of popularity of both outdoor and indoor grilling in recent years. Dark meat in particular, such as legs and thighs, stand up well to the intense heat of grilling because of its higher fat content and the presence of collagen, which melts and keeps the meat moist. Breasts should be marinated to keep them moist during grilling and will cook in no more than 15 minutes per side. Boneless breast will cook in about 6 minutes per side. Strong favors such as vinegar and soy sauce can be used with chicken bound for the grill. The grill itself should be brushed or rubbed with oil to keep white meat from sticking to it. If barbecue sauce is used, save it until you have turned the chicken skin side up.


Norman Rockwell knew his business when he chose a roast turkey as the symbol of abundance in his painting called Freedom from Want. There is nothing more American than the Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasting. Roasting a turkey can be a trying experience, especially one that tips the scales in excess of twenty pounds. It is hard to get the dark meat cooked through without overcooking the breast. One approach is to eliminate the dark meat entirely and buy a turkey breast (or two if the whole family is coming). The all-white meat breast is easily cooked according to the package directions, usually in a 350°F oven. If there are dark meat fans in the crowd or if cooking anything less than a whole bird seems somehow un-American, then satisfactory results can be obtained by roasting the bird at 325°F for 10 to 12 minutes per pound, shielding the breast with aluminum foil for the first hour, and continuing to cook until a meat thermometer registers 180°F when inserted into the deepest part of the thigh without touching bone. If the bird is stuffed, the stuffing must reach 160°F to ensure safety. Basting the breast with melted butter can help it stay moist. Another trick is to lay raw strips of bacon over the breast, letting the bacon release its fat to the breast as it crisps. Many turkey processors provide "selfbasting" birds, which are injected at the plant with oil to maintain their moistness. If you do not have a thermometer, the pop-up thermometers inserted at the plant are generally reliable. Or you can wiggle the legs and wings to see if they move freely, or insert a knife or fork into he bird to see if the juices run clear. Let the bird sit for 20 minutes after coming out of the over before trying to carve it. And give yourself plenty of timean eighteen-pound bird that goes into the oven after breakfast will not be ready until early to mid-afternoon.

Turkeys are sold both fresh and frozen. It is a matter of opinion whether one tastes better than the other. One thing is certain, howevera fresh turkey will not have to be defrosted, which can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Just keep a fresh bird in the refrigerator until you are preheating the oven, when you can take it out, rinse it off, remove the neck and giblets from the cavity, and pat it dry. A frozen turkey should be placed in a clean sink or large pan and defrosted under cold running water. It takes several hours to defrost a large, solidly frozen turkey.

Grill. Turkey thighs and drumsticks can be grilled just like chicken parts. So can turkey cutlets, which are slices of skinless, boneless turkey breast. Turkey breast is the lowest in fat of all the cuts of poultry, however, so breast meat should be marinated or brushed with oil before being subjected to the heat of grilling.

Sauté. Cutlets sliced very thinly are called turkey scaloppini, and they lend themselves very well to being sautéed in a pan and finished with a flavorful sauce.

Other turkey products. Turkey is a major factor in the delicatessen counter, with turkey rolls providing lunch meat and the dark meat used very extensively in frankfurters and other already-cooked products. Since breast meat is tends to be quite dry, processors form breast meat into rolls and inject them with a saline solutions to keep the meat moist and easily carved. Ground turkey is a popular substitute for ground beef in many recipes due to its lower fat content, and turkey is turning up in sausages and other products as processors continue to try to get away from relying on holiday sales to carry them through the year.


Squab can be roasted, broiled or grilled. The bird weighs only about one pound and will cook quickly whichever method is used. The key is to cook the bird only until the breast meat is medium-rare, with the juices till running pink and the meat still juicy and pinkish. Broiled squab should be turned once and will cook in 15 to 20 minutes. If grilling squab, start with the skin side down to melt the fat under the skin. If grilling is desired, it is best to buy boneless squab and also discard the wings so that the bird will lie flat on the grill. Boneless squab can also be sauteed in a pan.

Cornish Game Hens and Poussins

Cornish game hens and poussins are simply small chickens. They are generally intended to be served whole, or, at most, split in two (although these birds, like other chickens, are marketed in larger sizes then they used to be). They can be roasted at 350°F for 25 to 40 minutes, depending on size. They can also be broiled with the backbone removed so the split bird lies flat on the broiling pan.


Duck is all dark meat; the breast tastes more like turkey drumstick than it does like chicken breast. Smoked duck, when sliced, is easily mistaken for roast beef. The challenge in cooking duck is that the bird has quite a lot of fat and it is difficult to end up with meat that is moist but not greasy from the melting fat and skin that is crisp and flavorful instead of rubbery. High heat would help get rid of the fat while crisping the skin, but the fat melts quickly and begins to smoke. The cook can find the kitchen full of smoke and can even have a fire in the oven if the rendering process is not controlled.

Two methods are generally successful in rendering the fat while crisping the skin. The first involves medium heat while the second involves steam as well as dry heat.

Roasting. Prick the skin with the tip of a paring knife, being careful to pierce the fat layer without breaking the skin. This will help drain off the fat during cooking. Roast the bird in a 350°F oven, breast side up on a rack in a roasting pan, for one hour and fifteen minutes. Drain the fat out of the roasting pan and roast for 40 additional minutes at 350°F and then 15 minutes at 500°F to crisp the skin.

Twice-cooked. Chinese cooks use a different method to get rid of the fat and produce a crisp skin. With skin pricked as in the basic roasting directions, the duck is placed on a rack in a roasting pan with half an inch of boiling water in the bottom. The pan is covered and placed over heat to keep the water simmering for about an hour, until the skin pulls away from the wing joints, exposing the meat. The bird is then cooled to room temperature, brushed with soy sauce or other seasonings, and roasted in a 400°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until crisp. For an even crisper skin, rub the raw bird with salt and allow it to dry in the air in the refrigerator for several hours before cooking.

Broiled. Duck parts can also be broiled, although the fat released by the parts can smoke and even catch fire. Remove as much visible fat as possible before placing the parts in a broiling pan four inches from the preheated broiler. Broil 30 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Drain off fat as it accumulates or sprinkle the melted fat with salt to reduce the chance of fire.


Goose is typically purchased and cooked whole. The meat is even darker than duck and, when cooked, resembles fully cooked roast beef. The goose is also even fattier than the duck, since it has an even thicker layer of fat under the skin. Dry heat works better than steam to render the fat and produce a crisp skin.

Prick the skin all over with the point of a paring knife, being careful not to pierce the skin. Roast for one and a half hours, breast side down, in a 325°F oven. Remove from the oven and pour off the grease. Return to the oven and roast for another one and a quarter to one and a half hours until the skin has puffed up around the breastbone. Turn the oven up to 400°F, remove the goose from the oven and transfer, with rack, to a clean pan and roast for another 15 minutes until the skin is crisp. Let stand 30 minutes before carving.

Ostrich and Emu

Ostrich and emu are birds originally from southern Africa and Australia, respectively. The ostrich is the largest bird species and can reach eight feet in height. The emu is the second biggest bird species and tops out around six feet. Ostriches were formerly raised for their feathers, which were greatly prized for use in women's hats. When long feathers went out of fashion, the industry collapsed. It has revived in recent years, however, because of an interest in ostrich meat, which has very little fat or cholesterol. Both birds have deep red meat which reminds many people of venison. The meat can be sauteed or grilled and should be cooked only to medium-rare, since overcooking leaves the meat tough and dry.

See also China: Beijing (Peking) Cuisine ; Seabirds and Their Eggs .


Beilenson, Evelyn L., ed. Early American Cooking: Recipes from America's Historic Sites. White Plains, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1985.

Belk, Sarah. Around the Southern Table. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Boer, Nicholas. "Chefs Say Well-Fed Free-Range Chickens Are a Beautiful Thing." The Contra Costa Times (Contra Costa, Calif.), 23 May 2001.

Clifton, Claire, and Colin Spencer, eds. The Faber Book of Foods. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Corriher, Shirley O. CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1997.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Editors of Cook's Illustrated. The Cook's Illustrated Complete Book of Poultry. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1999.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis, Massimo Montanari, and Albert Sonnenfeld, eds. Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Grizmek, Bernhard, ed. Grizmek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1972.

National Research Council. Use of Drugs in Food Animals: Benefits and Risks. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences Press, 1999.

North, Mack O., and Donald D. Bell. Commercial Chicken Production Manual. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

North American Meat Processors Association. The Poultry Buyers Guide. Reston, Va.: North American Meat Processors Association, 1999.

Rombauer, Irma S., Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. The Joy of Cooking. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Smith, Page, and Charles Daniel. The Chicken Book. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 2000.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

Richard L. Lobb

Peking Duck

An elaborate method of preparing, cooking, and serving duck was developed by cooks in China's capital city and is known as Peking Duck. The cook will inflate the duck's carcass by blowing air between the skin and the body, blanch the duck in hot water, coat it with malt sugar, and pour boiling water into the cavity. The bird is then hung in a special vertical oven and roasted over a wood fire, preferably using the wood of fruit trees. The result is a bird with a taut golden skin and moist tender meat. Often only the skin is eaten at table, and the meat is sent back to the kitchen to make into other dishes. Or the meat can be cut into thin slices and rolled up in thin pancakes. Elaborate ceremony often attends the slicing of the bird.


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NAICS: 31-1615 Poultry Processing

SIC: 2015 Poultry Slaughtering and Processing

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 31-16151, 31-16154, 31-16157, 31-1615A, 31-1615D, and 31-1615W


Domesticated birds raised for food are classed together under the common name poultry, a word originally taken from the Latin pullus meaning a young fowl. The word fowl derives from the Anglo Saxon term fugol which still survives, almost intact, as the German vogel, bird, the V pronounced as an F. The birds that nest together under the poultry label are chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, and pigeons. Eggs are an important part of the poultry raising industry's output. Chickens are sometimes referred to as single or dual purpose, meaning that they are raised for eating or for both eating and egg laying. Poultry processing is a major part of meat production. Of the meat category taken as a whole, the largest grouping is red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and the smallest, fish and shellfish. Poultry is in the middle accounting for just over 40 percent of all meat protein consumed by the American public in 2006.

Chicken dominates the U.S. poultry industry both in terms of animals slaughtered and in pounds of meat produced. In 2006 just under 9 billion chickens were processed into meat in the United States, 96.9 percent of all poultry by unit count. The same year the industry produced 49.1 billion pounds of meat, 86.9 percent of all poultry shipments by weight. Only 255 million turkeys were slaughtered that year and produced 7.2 billion pounds of meat, accounting for 2.8 percent of animals and 12.7 percent of poultry meat. The shares of total production represented by ducks, geese, and other domesticated birds fell into the less than 1 percent category both in animal counts and in meat produced, ducks accounting for 0.3 percent of both animals and meat, and other birds, including geese, for 0.01 percent of both categories.

General Classifications

Birds that are eaten are all members of the biological class called Aves, or birds, but they derive from different families. Chickens, turkeys, and guinea fowl belong to the Phasianidae, which got its name from the Greek word for pheasant. Chickens are from the genus of Gallus (Latin for cock), turkeys from the genus Meleagris (Latin for guinea fowl). Although few of us have seen domestic chickens or turkeys fly, they are quite capable of doing so, but because they avoid flying unless threatened or living in the wild, their breast muscles are white because they are rarely used for strenuous activities. Drumsticks are darker because the birds walk a great deal. Ducks and geese belong to the family Anatidae, or water fowl. They fly more frequently and have darker breast meat as a consequence; the darker color comes about because the muscles are more oxygenated when in frequent use. Pigeons belong to the family Columbidae, from the Latin for dove.


There are some sixty breeds of chickens raised in the United States, each with multiple varieties. The Plymouth Rock breed, for instance, which originates in New England, comes in barred, white, bluff, partridge, silver penciled, blue, and Columbian varieties. The term barred refers to elongated black bars marking white feathers so densely that the chicken has a bluish tint. The Cornish breed (developed in Britain) comes in dark, white, white laced red, and buff varieties. Of the sixty breeds the Plymouth Rock and the Cornish are the most common. Pure bred chickens are rarely sold in the market because most commercial varieties are the result of cross-breeding to produce subvarieties and strains with qualities ideal for commercial purposes. Both of the named breeds are used as breeding stock with other varieties.

In commercial categorization, broilers, also known as fryers, represent the largest market for chicken. Broilers are around seven weeks old when slaughtered and weigh 2.5 to 4.5 pounds. Roasters are four to five months old, weigh 5 to 7 pounds, and are intended for roasting in one piece. Stewing and baking hens are ten months to a year-and-a-half old. The meat is tougher and is best served after slow cooking or baking under moist conditions. Capons are full grown neutered males weighing in at 4 to 7 pounds, slaughtered four to eight months after hatching. The meat is tender and is usually roasted. Roosters have dark skin and tough meat and therefore must be cooked for long periods of time to make them tasty. The natural life span of a chicken is between six and eight years, but rare indeed is the chicken that reaches such an age. Laying hens are usually slaughtered after about two or three years. A hen will begin laying eggs after reaching 20-22 months of age.


Turkey got its name from the eponymous country. In Europe, guinea fowl, originating in Africa, was believed to have come from Turkey. European settlers arriving in the new world thought they were seeing this same bird in their new home and transferred the name to a different animal. Turkey is native to North America, a white-plumed, large bird. The American Poultry Association recognizes eight varieties: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm.

Both turkey hens (female) and toms (male) are equally tender to the taste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies turkeys by age. Age designations are controlled by regulations; a turkey is classified as young if it is less than 8 months old. Thus unless the turkey is marked young, it will always be older than eight months in age. Most turkeys live for twelve to twenty-six weeks before they are slaughtered in commercial turkey raising environments. At the extreme, turkeys may live up to ten years, but such life-spans are very rare even in the wild.

Duck and Goose

Duck species were introduced from China (the Pekin duck) and domestic varieties developed from these. Goose varieties were introduced from Europe but had been bred since prehistoric times in China, Egypt, and in India. Ducks are slaughtered young—broiler/fryer ducklings at eight weeks and broiler ducks at sixteen weeks. Older ducks are not sold for home preparation but are used in processed meats and as food ingredients. The sex of the bird does not influence its taste.

Geese are sold for at-home preparation as young geese or as goslings, the first weighing between 12 to 14 pounds, the latter 8 pounds. Geese surviving more than one and one-half years are used as breeders; when their productive lives are over, they are slaughtered and the meat is used in processed foods. As with ducks, the taste or tenderness of the goose meat is not affected by the animal's sex.

Industry Structure

Growing chickens and turkeys became an industrial enterprise in the twentieth century based on the confined raising of birds in ever larger populations, under more scientific supervision and control, and increasingly under contractual arrangements whereby processors indirectly manage the activity of growers by providing chicks from hatcheries, feed, and veterinary services, with the growers providing facilities and labor. Industrialization of poultry—which little resembles traditional ways of raising animals—was prompted by competitive pressures to improve labor and feed productivity, and to make animals as uniform as possible through genetic control and feeding. The objective was to standardize down-stream processing and packaging of the product for the grocery shelf. Using the most recent data on poultry operations derived from the 2002 Census of Agriculture conducted by the USDA, following is a snapshot of growers by product:

  • Broilers. For broiler operations, data show that just under 7 percent of farms (2,211 of 32,006) produced 32 percent of all boilers. These growers housed 750,000 or more chickens per site. Operations raising at least 300,000 or more chickens represented 28 percent of all operations and produced 79 percent of all broilers. Conversely, the 10,869 farms raising from one to 1,999 chickens, representing 34 percent of all farms producing broilers, only sold 0.01 percent of chickens ending up on shelves. Broiler operations are concentrated in southern states.
  • Laying Hens. The largest of those operations producing laying hens, intended for egg production, grow 100,000 or more hens per cycle. A mere one half of one percent (0.5) of farms (498 of 98,315) produced 75.6 percent of all laying hens.
  • Turkeys. The turkey business in the early 2000s was similarly concentrated. The largest growers, with operations of 100,000 birds or more represented 9.5 percent of farms (800 of 8,436), but produced 65 percent of all turkeys.

The typical ownership relationships in the poultry industry involve the processor as the central controller. The processor owns hatcheries where breeding hens produce eggs. The eggs are incubated artificially by the processor in the hatchery. Chicks are culled and sorted by sex and are then transferred to growers. Growers are typically independent farming operations, but are tightly managed by the processor under contracts. Feed and veterinary support are provided by the processor. The grower handles day-to-day management of growing the birds. Birds reaching the right age are then returned to the processor for slaughter. This general arrangement provides the processor maximum control over the production of birds while avoiding the least profitable activity—the labor-intensive growing stage.

Meat from the processing plant is distributed in packaged form to retail channels by means of wholesale distributors. Meat in bulk and frozen form reaches the food industry and is incorporated into other food products like chicken noodle soup, canned meats, turkey sausages, and lunch meats.

Ducks and geese have thus far escaped the rigors of mass production which characterizes poultry raising in the United States because demand for their meat is less pronounced. Most ducks are raised indoors in Wisconsin, Indiana, and New York. Geese fare better. They are raised in California and South Dakota, kept indoors during their first six weeks and are then raised in open pasture on grass supplemented by grain.

Avian Flu

As in the beef industry where the incidence of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) has caused significant market disturbances so, in the poultry industry, outbreaks of avian flu have produced at least temporary downward pressures on consumption, shifts in market shares, and have disrupted international trade. Avian flu is caused by the Avian Influenza A (H5N1) virus; the virus occurs naturally among birds, carried in their intestines, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most birds are not affected by the virus. Once an infection occurs, however, the disease is very contagious and passes rapidly from bird to bird through saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Domesticated animals can acquire the virus from wild birds. Low and high virulence forms of the disease cause mild or deadly infections. Mild infections cause bird feathers to ruffle and egg production to drop. The highly virulent form of the disease attacks organs and can result in mortality rates as high as 90 to 100 percent within forty-eight hours. The virus has many subtypes of which some are transmissible to humans.

According to CDC reporting, avian flu outbreaks with human transmission took place in New York state in November 2003 and in Canada in February 2004. Outbreaks without human transmission also took place in February 2004 in Texas, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. These events affected exports of chicken and turkeys from the United States at a time when a single BSE occurrence in Washington state also affected beef exports. As a consequence pork exports increased sharply, while exports of both beef and poultry declined.


Poultry Meat

At the production level, measured as shipments of the poultry processing industry, poultry was a $47.8 billion industry in 2005, up from $31.7 billion in shipments in 1997. The industry was growing at a rate of 5.29 percent per year, outperforming Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which grew at a rate of 5.20 percent annually. Shipments of poultry also slightly outperformed the growth rate seen for all food production during this period (5.27%). In comparison with red meat, poultry did much better. Shipments of red meat increased at an annual rate of 2.83 percent.

During this same period, the quantities of meat sold, measured in per capita consumption as reported by the USDA, also grew but at lower rates—suggesting that consumers were paying more for meat in each successive year of the period. Chicken consumption increased at the rate of 2.4 percent a year whereas turkey consumption declined at the rate of 0.3 percent. The combination of the two (chicken and turkey), excluding duck and goose, increased at the annual rate of 1.9 percent a year. Poultry did much better than either red meat or meats from the deep—fish and shellfish; these two categories grew at 0.1 and 1.6 percent a year respectively. Per capita consumption data shown as bars, overlaid by poultry shipments in millions of dollars as a curve, are presented in Figure 176.

As a consequence of these growth trends, chicken became the top meat product consumed by American customers in 2003. In that year Americans consumed 95.5 pounds of chicken and 93.2 pounds of beef and veal combined. Until that year beef and veal had consistently been the number one meat products of a nation famed for its cowboys and ranchers. Chicken has since widened its lead: in 2005 chicken consumption was 100.4 pounds per capita while consumption of beef and veal stood at 93.8 pounds.


The market for eggs is more difficult to track using Economic Census reporting because the U.S. Census Bureau only reports detailed data on processed eggs (as part of its Food Manufacturing not elsewhere classified category (NAICS 31-199M)). Processed eggs are those sold in dried, frozen, and liquid forms, including yolks and egg-whites separated. The sales of fresh eggs is indistinguishable from other dairy products in the Census Bureau's reporting on the Poultry and Poultry Product Merchant Wholesalers industry (NAICS 42-4440). Data on the value of egg production, however, is available from the USDA at the producer level.

In 2004 the value of egg production was $5.3 billion, up from $3.9 billion in 1997, showing annual growth of 4.6 percent. Thus egg production was below that for poultry meat but much higher than other sources of animal protein. If we apply the growth between 1997 and 2004 and extend the series by one year, egg sales at the producer level were $5.5 billion, indicating total sales for the poultry industry (meat and eggs combined) of $53.3 billion in 2005.

International Trade

Imports of poultry products, measured as a percentage of domestic production, are minute. Exports are also relatively low, amounting to 14.5 percent of domestic production in 2004 for chicken, 8.1 percent for turkeys, and 2.3 percent for eggs. Export levels, however, have declined since 1997 as a consequence of avian flu fears; outbreaks of flu have caused bans on U.S. products in foreign countries. Imports have edged up fractionally during the 1997 to 2004 period but the quantities involved were minute.

Product Details

A general perspective on the poultry industry, based on dollars of shipments, including eggs with poultry meat, is provided for the year 2002 in Figure 177. The year 2002 is not chosen but imposed by the statistics available. Details on the industry come from the last published full Economic Census at time of writing. The egg category has been added using Department of Agriculture data.

The chart shows the dominant role of young chickens in the industry with 58.4 percent of total output as measured in dollars. Older chickens sold for direct preparation in the home are a tiny slice of the total at 0.7 percent—yet larger in share than ducks, geese, and guinea fowl combined. While strongly promoted—and sold—as a year-around meat product, turkeys are still predominantly a holiday food. The processed poultry category is also predominantly chicken meat included as an ingredient in sausages, lunchmeats, soups, and stews.

In looking at changes in share between 1997 and 2002, the largest category, young chickens showed a very healthy growth rate of 7.4 percent per year. Eggs also grew at 2 percent per year in this period. All the other categories except one declined in sales, hens and fowl at 2.4 percent, processed poultry at 1.1 percent, and turkey at 0.9 percent per year. The surprise, in this period, has been the dramatic growth in the Other Poultry category, climbing in this period at 27.7 percent yearly. The cause of this unusual growth was not discernible from industry reporting—in part because the duck and goose segment is still minute and consequently the commercial press has its eyes on chicken and the major companies that sell it. The next full Economic Census, scheduled to take place in 2008 to collect 2007 data, may reveal whether or not all of us will develop a taste for duck and goose in the future or whether this past period was in the nature of a fluke.


Based on reporting by Watt Poultry Online, which minutely follows the industry, the top-ranked chicken producer in 2006 was Pilgrim's Pride Corporation based on its output of broilers. The company reported sales in 2006 of $5.23 billion on its 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) but was then in the process of acquiring Gold Kist, another major producer, with annual sales of $2.3 billion, principally in chicken and in pork. With the acquisition completed late in 2006, Pilgrim's Pride became the largest producer of chicken in the United States. The company originated in 1946, founded by Aubrey Pilgrim and partner Pat Johns as a feed and seed store in Pittsburg, Texas, still the company's base. Pilgrim's Pride also participates in turkey production and is ranked fifteenth in that category by Watt Poultry.

Until Gold Kist's acquisition by Pilgrim's Pride, the leading chicken producer in the United States was Tyson Foods Inc., a $25.6 billion company and the nation's largest meat producer. Tyson's sales in chicken were $7.9 billion in 2006. In addition, Tyson was the leading beef producer in 2006 with sales of $11.8 billion. It was a leader in pork as well with sales of $3.1 billion, and in sales of prepared food at $2.7 billion. Tyson, however, was always and foremost a chicken producer, having originated whenc its founder, John Tyson, began selling chickens beyond the borders of Arkansas. In the chicken category, Tyson—like most leaders in the industry—is vertically integrated. It operates its own hen farms and hatcheries but grows its chickens using contract growers.

Maryland-based Perdue Farms, Inc. is ranked third in chicken and fifth in turkey production in the United States with sales in 2006 of $3.4 billion. The company began in 1920, founded by Arthur W. Perdue. It has been a family-run and privately held operation for over three generations, with its current head being the founder's grandson, Jim Perdue.

Based on turkey production measured in weight, Butterball, LLC, a joint venture formed in 2006, was the nation's largest turkey producer. The venture is owned by Goldsboro Milling Company (51%) and by Smithfield Foods, Inc. (49%). Goldsboro Milling is a privately-held feed producer in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Smithfield was the country's top-ranked pork producer in 2006 and fifth in beef production, with sales of $11.9 billion in 2007. Butterball itself is the spin-off of ConAgra Foods, Inc.'s turkey business in which Goldsboro was an investor.

Second ranked in the turkey business is Hormel Foods Corporation, operating in the business through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Jennie-O Turkey Store. Hormel is better known as the second ranking pork producer and canner in the United States, known worldwide for its spiced ham product Spam. Hormel had sales of $5.7 bil-lion in 2006. Jennie-O is based in Willmar, Minnesota. Along with whole birds, the company also offers a wide array of processed food products, including fresh processed meat, sausages, hot dogs, and burger patties.

Cargill Corporation, the nation's largest privately held company, is a global trader in agricultural and food products, provides pharmaceutical and food ingredients, offers financing products, and produces industrial goods from agricultural commodities. Cargill is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The company participates in the turkey business, ranked third overall, through its Wichita, Kansas-based Cargill Value Added Meats. Cargill Corporation reported total sales of $75.2 billion in 2006 but does not routinely provide details on its component operations.

The Census Bureau reported participation in this industry by 311 companies in 2002. These companies operated 536 establishments, of which 400 had twenty employees or more. In line with the rest of the meat industry, company and establishment counts in poultry actually increased over 1997. In most other branches of the industry, consolidation has produced reductions in the number of participants. Company counts in 1997 were 259, total establishments 474, and large establishments 387.


If we divide the United States into four major regions, as the U.S. Census Bureau does, most chicken production (approximately 86%) takes place in the South. If we divide the South into three parts, the West South Central region, with Texas in one corner and Arkansas in the other, accounts for 25 percent of chicken production. Arkansas is the leading producer in the area. The East South Central region, with Kentucky at the top and Mississippi and Alabama on the bottom, accounts for 27 percent; Alabama is the leading state. The South Atlantic region, extending from Delaware in the north to Florida in the south, accounts for 34 percent of production and is thus the top region in the country. In that region Georgia is the top state, producing the most chicken. Georgia alone accounts for nearly 17 percent of all chicken raised in the country. In the rest of the United States, California in the West, Missouri in the Midwest, and Pennsylvania in the Northeast are chicken producing states as well.

Whereas chicken production is centered in the South, turkey production is centered in the Upper Midwest. More than half of all turkeys are produced in that region. Minnesota is the nation's top producer. Ducks are raised in New York, Indiana, and in Wisconsin; geese in South Dakota and in California. Most of these water fowl coincide with turkeys geographically in that they are also raised predominantly in more northern latitudes.

Processing plants are clustered in states where the birds are raised, and finished product reaches population centers by means of refrigerated modes of transport.


Poultry is delivered in the refrigerated food channel of the grocery industry. Thus its distribution parallels, and uses the same facilities as, dairy products and red meat. Grocery stores—be these major chains, parts of wholesaler merchandisers like Wal-Mart, or warehouse clubs like Costco—obtain their goods from wholesalers. Large chains typically maintain their own wholesale operations but also use independent wholesale distributors. Independents accounted for a relatively small proportion of total sales, the bulk of products moving through chain store distribution centers. Distribution centers for refrigerated products are usually supplied by processors using routes either directly operated by the processor or independents. Route operators follow the same circuits day after day using refrigerated trucks. They pick up their shipments from the producer's processing plant or from strategically-placed factory distribution centers maintained by the processors. These centers, in turn, are supplied by bulk shipments from slaughter houses.

Fast food chains and food companies, those using poultry as food ingredients, obtain their products using long-term contracts with major suppliers. Independent restaurants normally purchase their products from wholesalers directly or grocery stores at commercial discounts.


Poultry is widely consumed. Chicken is as readily accessible in fast food restaurants as beef and is a common ingredient in soups. Turkey is sold in many processed forms beyond the traditional Thanksgiving turkey roast. Geese are the festive bird of choice for European immigrants accustomed to roast goose at Christmas time. Like goose, duck is less universally consumed. It requires special efforts to get it; duck is not normally offered in grocery stores and almost as rarely in most mainstream restaurants.


Markets adjacent to poultry are those for red meat and seafood—the other principal sources of protein in diets. The chief non-meat sources of proteins are legumes including beans, peas, and lentils. In rural areas, wild game is an alternative as well, and in that context hunting as an activity, and the products that hunters use, represent adjacent markets as well.


By the early 1990s, poultry production had reached a high level of industrialization marked by sophisticated methods. In the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century, would-be processors of chickens and turkeys could purchase poultry systems from major U.S. corporations, components of which are genetically perfected chicken lines, developmental kits that precisely specify which feed products to use in growing chicks to birds at every stage, bird housing designs, and manuals dictating the veterinary treatment, including drugs, to be applied to birds throughout their brief life. R&D in this industry is thus characterized by the pursuit of incremental improvements to existing systems rather than radical departures.

R&D aims include better disease control, in part ensured by superior stocks, enhanced feeding regimes, and medical treatment. Experimentation with bird housing is taking place in order to reduce bird mortality; mortality rates are in part due to crowding, in part to diseases produced by poor handling of waste. Public concern with the fat content of meats generally has triggered initiatives to develop birds with leaner meat; but when animal fats are lost, the taste of the meat is affected negatively. This has led to R&D approaches for treating lean meat with chemical taste-enhancers that also deliver secondary but useful functions—like keeping the meat moist. Such approaches, of course, make poultry more and more into a manufactured product far removed from natural food. A small segment of the industry, in reaction to these developments and responding to a minority demand for organic foods, is engaged in improving organic farming methods by the application of modern knowledge while avoiding direct interventions into chicken genes or dosing animals with chemicals or chemically fortified feeds. Disease control is pursued on various fronts, including raising hardier stocks, vaccinating birds, and better controlling the confined environments in which most birds are raised. Removing droppings is a principal approach to keeping birds healthy. Environmental pressures underlie work on reusing litter and waste and better treatment and disposal methods, including conversion of the waste products into biofuel.

Radical departures in research were at least foreshadowed in 2002 when Avigdor Cahaner, a professor of genetics working at Hebrew University in Israel, unveiled the world's first genetically produced featherless chicken. The argument for featherless chickens is, first, that feed is used to grow the feathers which, in the end, are waste and, second, that featherless chickens will be leaner because chickens employ a layer for fatty tissue to support the feathers. The announcement was greeted with derision in 2002.


The most notable trend in the industry in the first decade of the new century was the gain in market share by chicken and turkey at the expense of red meats. Pork and seafood were also improving their share but not at rates comparable to chicken. The underlying cause of this advance by poultry is due to the public's concern over health. That concern, in turn, is based on alarming trends in the incidence of overweight and obese individuals, including children. To a significant extent the growing girth of the American public is most obviously due to overall calorie intake rather than the consumption of specific foods.

Per capita caloric intake by the U.S. population, according to the USDA, was 3,200 per day in 1974, 3,300 in 1984, 3,700 in 1994, and 3,900 in 2004. Since in that thirty year period human biology is not likely to have changed, a nearly 22 percent increase in daily food consumption was bound to result in added weight—especially since, according to the CDC, only 40 percent of the population engages in exercise at medically recommended levels. The human tendency is to blame the agency rather than the agent, thus food rather than the consumer, and poultry has benefited from the public's attempts at coping by shifting from one food to another without actually reducing intake.

In comparison with beef and pork, chicken has fewer calories per pound, as reported in Food Review by Kuo S. Huang, an analyst with the USDA. Of these three meats, chicken is also lowest in fat. Such measures have favored chicken and other poultry although, as Huang reports, of the three meats chicken is highest in cholesterol per pound of meat.

Concerns over animal diseases, avian flu specifically, and concerns over food and feed contamination have troubled the industry and consumers during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Poultry flocks are more endangered in modern times because birds raised in huge numbers and in tight spaces are especially subject to epidemics. International trade in feeds or feed additives are potential sources of danger and have raised alarm. With growing globalization and further industrialization of poultry, such issues are likely to loom larger as time goes on.


Poultry producers enjoy a natural advantage. The public appears convinced that poultry is superior to red meat in the context of healthy eating. The industry's general message to the public attempts to reinforce this perception and has led to major efforts by the pork industry, for instance, to reposition pork from red to white with its slogan "Pork, The Other White Meat."

Aside from institutional marketing of poultry, targeting is largely based on price for chicken and seasonal appeals to turkey buyers before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although poultry producers can also obtain USDA grading services for chickens and turkeys, the public rarely sees chicken labeled USDA Grade A, for instance; grade B poultry meat is never offered in stores but ends up in processed foods. A single quality grade is assumed by the public—and delivered by the industry.


American Chicken Haulers Association, http://chromacity.net/acha/acha.htm

American Poultry Association, http://www.amerpoultryassn.com

National Turkey Federation, http://www.eatturkey.com/about/about.html

U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, http://www.poultryegg.org


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"Focus on: Chicken." U.S. Department of Agriculture. 4 April 2006. Available from 〈http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Chicken_Food_Safety_Focus/index.asp〉.

"General Summary Statistics." 1997 Economic Census. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. June 2001.

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Henderson, John R. "The ICYouSee Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart." ITHACA College. 18 April 2007. Available from 〈http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html〉.

Hitt, Jack. "The Year in Ideas; Featherless Chicken." The New York Times. 15 December 2002.

Huang, Kuo S. "Price and Income Affect Nutrients Consumed from Meats." FoodReview. January-April 1996.

"Key Facts About Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) and Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus." U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7 May 2007. Available from 〈http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/gen-info/facts.htm〉.

Laux, Marsha. "Ducks and Geese." Iowa State University, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. February 2004. Available from 〈http://www.agmrc.org/agmrc/commodity/livestock/poultry/poultry+ducks+geese.htm〉.

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O'Keefe, Terrence. "Top Turkey Company Profiles." Watt Poultry USA. 20 February 2007. Available from 〈http://www.wattpoultry.com/poultryusa/article.aspx?id=10104〉.

"Poultry Slaughter: 2006 Annual Summary." U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. February 2007.

Thornton, Gary. "Broiler Top 10 Companies." Watt Poultry USA. 28 February 2007. Available from 〈http://www.wattpoultry.com/poultryusa/article.aspx?id=10098〉.

"Turkey Hatchery." U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. 14 February 2007.


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poultry Collective term for domestic fowl reared as a source of meat and eggs. Chickens are the most important domesticated bird in the world. They are the major source of eggs and an important meat source. These light-skeletoned birds have short, weak wings, strong legs, chin wattles and a head comb. Males are known as cocks; females as hens; and castrated males as capons. Some breeds, such as Rhode Island, Wyandotte and Plymouth Rock, are raised for meat and eggs. Others, such as White Plymouth Rock, Cornish and Rock Cornish, mainly supply meat. Species Gallus domesticus. Other forms of poultry are duck, goose, guinea fowl, and turkey.


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poultry General term for farmyard birds (as opposed to wild game birds) kept for eggs and/or meat; chicken, duck, goose, guinea fowl, pigeon, and turkey.


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poul·try / ˈpōltrē/ • n. domestic fowl, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese.