Amid low meat stocks, chicken remains Australia’s go to source of protein. Here’s why

chicken schnitzel

“What the heck am I going to have for dinner?” is what I found myself wondering three days ago as I wandered the aisles of my local Woolworths, surrounded by pristine, unobstructed views of the shelves.

Much of what I wanted was out of stock so I got to have quite a good look at the back wall of the meat fridge — especially where the chicken would usually be.

Even KFC was running low (it cleverly turned it into a PR coup, with stories in all the popular press). It turns out Australians eat a lot of chicken. A crazy amount, in fact.

I went looking for data on just how much chicken we eat, and the story is astonishing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics produces beautiful regular data on meat production and the change over time in chicken consumption is startling.

It’s good news if you like cute mammals. The number of cows sent to the abattoir has not kept up with population growth, as the next chart shows. The number of calves being processed is down hugely. Veal is passé. Lambs are still being eaten, of course, and pigs too.

But our ability to have increasingly protein-heavy diets and a higher population is all thanks to the chickens.

The Omicron blip in chicken production is the first real slowing in our consumption of the white meat in decades.

The extraordinary difference between the popularity of chicken and other meats raises the question: why?

One way of answering that is to look at price inflation of the bird in question. It costs more or less the same as it did in 1990. Up perhaps 10%. As the next graph shows, other meats have risen in price much faster in the same period.

Of course, this leads to further questions such as why is chicken so damn cheap?

Well chicken is cheap to make. Chickens, unlike cows, can be grown in operations that are truly industrial. And that permits us to unleash the full force of industrial innovation on their brief, sorry lives.

Meat chickens in this country are not grown in battery cages, the Australian Chicken Growing Council says, but they are grown in barns where automation and computer monitoring are de rigueur.

This chicken farming video gives you a sense of the scale of it all. It starts with some beautifully cinematic shots of pristine hatcheries and cute fluffy yellow chicks but — due warning — before long turns into something not for the faint of heart.

The Australian industry is dominated by two big players. Inghams, which is listed on the stock exchange, and Baiada Poultry, which is a privately owned family business. They are vertically integrated, meaning they own the whole system — from chicken feed to processing.

“[T]he recent Omicron surge in Australia has presented unprecedented challenges to Inghams’ Australian business, with many Inghams employees being forced to isolate at home,” Inghams’ CEO recently told the stock market.

It won’t take long for the industry to get back on track after any blip in production — the life cycle of a meat chicken is as little as five or six weeks. The farmers just need to incubate the eggs and restock the barns and the great growing can begin again.

Beyond the organic segment, which accounts for 1% of the market, chicken farming is not so much about chickens scratching around in the grass. It’s about speed and weight.

Speed allows farmers to produce many chickens a year each barn. A chicken can live for several years, but the ones we grow for meat don’t. The result of that is that the number of chickens eaten each year is far higher than the number of chickens alive at any one point. And every chicken is bigger now. An Australian chicken used to yield 865 grams of meat in 1965. Now it is 1.95 kilograms a bird.

The rising volume of meat from each bird must be good news for the animal lovers among us. At risk of sounding trite, the moral impact of taking a life must be lower when the yield of  doing so is higher. What’s more, chickens have tiny brains. I am an ex-vegetarian and once calculated the best animals to eat from a protein-yield to brain-size perspective. Chickens were among the best choices.

Chickens are also much lower in carbon emissions than red meat. Each kilogram of beef produces 10 times the carbon of a kilogram of chicken. Which means the future will not be beefy. Steaks are arguably going the way of the horse and cart — you see them around, but you don’t have them at home.

Unless the lab-grown meat industry starts making some dramatic steps, the incredible rise of the humble chook looks set to continue.

This article was first published by Crikey.

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