A Shipping Error 100 Years Ago Launched the $30 Billion Chicken Industry

Some archaeologists believe that when future civilizations sort through the debris of our modern era, we won’t be defined by the skyscraper, the iPhone, or the automobile, but rather something more humble: the chicken bone. The reason? We eat so many chickens. In fact, in 2020 alone, people around the world consumed over 70 billion of them, up from 8 billion in 1965. It may surprise you to learn that the system that makes it possible for us to eat so much chicken in the first place actually originated with a minor clerical error. The story begins 100 years ago in 1923 with homemaker and farmer Cecile Steele (pictured above) of Ocean View, Delaware. Steele, like many other rural Americans in her time, kept a small flock of chickens that she raised for eggs and waited to slaughter them for meat once their productivity waned. One day, quite by accident, the local chick hatchery delivered 500 birds — 10 times more than the 50 Steele had ordered. That was a lot of hens — bigger farms at the time had only 300. Returns weren’t really an option, so Steele kept the birds, feeding and watering the chicks by hand in a barn the size of a studio apartment — 256 square feet — that was heated by a coal stove. Less than 6 months later, over 100 of the original 500 chicks had died, but Steele still made a sizable profit off the 2-pound survivors — almost $11 per pound in today’s money. That caused her to ramp up her operations. Steele’s accident set off the chicken revolution as we know it today. Over the next century, we may witness another overhaul of our food system. Late last year, the FDA approved the first “lab-grown” chicken, made directly from animal cells. In another 100 years, if artificial intelligence hasn’t put journalists out of work, a future writer might entertain us with the story of the next Cecile Steele. Instead of a farmer, she could be a scientists in a lab somewhere, cooking up the chicken-free chicken of 2123.