Wings for the Super Bowl, and What Happens to the Rest of the Bird

If you are a football fan, and you plan to watch the Super Bowl Sunday, there is a good chance you will be eating chicken wings.

Sometime in the past two decades, wings became the defining game-day snack; so as it does every year, the National Chicken Council has released a forecast of how many wings will be eaten. Their estimate: 1.25 billion wing portions—enough, the trade group says, to lay a round-trip path between the teams’ home stadiums 28 times, or circle the Grand Canyon 120 times, or put 572 wings on every seat in every NFL stadium in the U.S.

Which is entertaining math. But what interests me is what is missing in the game-day equation. That is: Where does the rest of the chicken go?

Picture of a man picking up eggs

A workman gathers eggs at huge chicken house in Los Angeles, California. Photograph by James P. Blair, National Geographic Creative

We eat four wing segments—two “drumettes,” the piece closest to the body, and two “flats,” the double-boned piece analogous to your forearm—per chicken. That 1.25 billion, then, represents 312.5 million chickens. It sounds like a lot, but the Super Bowl’s consumption represents only a fraction of the chicken the U.S. produces each year, which is almost 9 billion birds. And of those birds, we eat only a few of their component parts: overwhelmingly, the breasts and the wings.

The rest of the bird, roughly one-fifth by weight of what is harvested from a carcass after the heads, viscera and so on are removed, get sold abroad. What chicken wings actually represent—in addition to a spicy snack that complements beer—is the United States’ success over decades in rethinking the chicken, from an intact bird that began as a sit-down Sunday meal, to a source of components that fuel a global trade.

Here’s what that trade looks like. The main buyers of U.S. chicken last year were Mexico, Hong Kong, Angola, mainland China, and Russia; after that, Cuba, Canada, Taiwan, Iraq and the Republic of Georgia. The vast majority of chicken that we sell overseas is parts; which is to say, the parts that we in the U.S. don’t want.

Here’s how that breaks down. First, there are actually three segments per wing: the drumette, the flat and then the tip, the flexible end of the wing, mostly cartilage and skin. Those get sold to China, for a deep-fried snack resembling our game-day wings. (Toby Moore of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Council told me by email: “Think Beijing wing tips instead of Buffalo wings and you get an idea of their popularity.”) China also buys the other end of the bird: It is the sole market for chicken feet, called paws by the poultry industry. U.S. processors used to consider the feet a valueless discard, good only for sending to the rendering plant along with intestines and any organs that are not the liver, gizzard or heart. But in 1991, Perdue changed the mechanics of its processing lines to preserve the feet. As a company representative told the Freakonomics podcast in 2011, a new market was born. That market grew explosively—so quickly, in fact, that it triggered a U.S.-China trade war in 2011, with China charging that the U.S. was dumping chicken feet at low prices, and the U.S. replying that it was hard to underprice a product that had no value at home. (Spoiler alert: They made up.)

The biggest volume of chicken going abroad, though is dark meat. If you’ve ever stood at a meat counter and contemplated the price difference between chicken breasts and thighs, what you are seeing in those labels is the U.S. preference for white meat. “The boneless, skinless breast is king in the United States,” Tom Super of the National Chicken Council told me. (The same preference for white meat led poultry genetics companies to breed broilers into birds that are disproportionately top-heavy with breast muscle.)

Russia and Eastern Europe used to be the main buyers of dark meat, until Russia objected to the U.S. industry’s use of antibiotics in live chickens and chlorine rinses of slaughtered meat—a move that may have represented legitimate concern, or may have been trade maneuvering. Now, Africa is competing with them. Angola represents American chicken’s door into the continent. In another sign of the intense jockeying for market share, the other African market for imported chicken, South Africa, buys mostly from Brazil.

Picture of chickens

Live chickens are strapped to a bicycle for a journey to the market in Nepal. Photograph by Jodi Cobb, National Geographic Creative

There’s one other unwanted part of the chicken that fuels an international trade: the feathers. As it slaughters chickens, the U.S. industry produces 1.6 million tons of feathers each year. They are sterilized, ground up and exported as “feather meal,” a component of animal feed. the top buyer is Indonesia.

So while you’re gnawing on a wing bone Sunday, spare a thought for the chicken that it used to be attached to. Chances are, it has traveled halfway around the world.