As you’ve probably heard, there’s an egg shortage. It was caused by the worst bird flu outbreak in U.S. history, which has killed nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys since December.
Fewer chickens has meant fewer, more expensive eggs, forcing restaurants, bakeries and consumers to cut back on pricey poultry. While the disease is under control for now, egg prices will stay inflated for more than a year as farmers struggle to rebuild their flocks (See Want a Bird-Flu Free World? Breed Resistant Birds).
Aside from its effect on the food industry, the so-called “poultry apocalypse” has raised an important question: Is U.S. chicken farming fundamentally unsustainable? How many chickens can we keep cramming into factory farms to meet our relentless demand for their meat and eggs?
In order to understand our insatiable chicken obsession, it helps to consider its early origins. How did we get to a place where there are more chickens than people on earth, anyway?
It all started with trend-setting Queen Victoria in 19th century Great Britain. In 1842, the Queen and her husband, Prince Albert, imported an “exotic” breed of fowl from China named Cochins. They were large and the queen was enthralled. A fad was born.
“Cochins came like giants upon the scene; they were seen, and they conquered,” wrote a nineteenth-century poultry historian quoted in Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? “Every visitor went home to tell tales of the new fowl that were as big as ostriches, and roared like lions, while [they] were gentle as lambs.”
The fad spread to the U.S. and became known as “hen fever” or simply, “the fancy.” (See The Forgotten History of Hen Fever), but by 1855, the fever slowed. Fanciers grew tired of their absurdly expensive hobby (a pair of Cochins was once valued at $700), and the birds lost their exotic appeal. The domesticated fowl returned to their unassuming barnyard status. People calmed down.
But because of all the Cochins imported during the hen fever, there were a lot more chickens around than before, and people started raising them exclusively for their eggs. These were mostly small-scale backyard operations that yielded minimal product. Poultry farmers were at the mercy of the hens’ reproductive cycle—a three-week waiting game from laying to hatching.
The solution to speeding up the process to produce more eggs? Artificial incubation.
According to Lawler, ancient Egyptians and Chinese had used artificial incubation as early as the 4th century BC by heating large rooms with straw and camel dung. “By the medieval era, Europeans marveled at multi-chambered incubators in the Nile Delta capable of handling thousands of eggs at a time,” Lawler writes. The Arabic term for incubator translated to “chicken machine.”
The exact methods weren’t fully understood by the West for decades. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when Lyman Byce invented the first commercially-viable incubator, that the U.S. could start mass producing chicken and eggs.
Within a decade, egg production and its profits nearly doubled. In 1880, there were 100 million chickens producing 5.5 billion eggs worth $150 million, according to Lawler. Ten years later, there were more than 280 million chickens laying 10 billion eggs worth $275 million.
Byce’s hometown of Petaluma, California was the first to take advantage of the new technology. More than 75 percent of the town’s population took part in the growing egg industry—a lucrative trade. By 1907, the small town produced more than $3 million worth of eggs and poultry.
The formerly wide open landscape of Petaluma was now dotted with dozens of hatching plants, the largest of which churned out 100,000 chicks every three weeks. The town dubbed itself, “The Egg Basket of the World.”
While the commercial incubator provided the spark of modern egg consumption, World War I fueled the fire. In 1917, the U.S. Food Administration diverted red meat and pork to the troops abroad, forcing the American public to seek protein alternatives—eggs. Now a necessity, the egg gained momentum.
And after the first poultry factory farms started popping up in the 1920s, the Department of Agriculture launched a “poultry-improvement plan” to make hens more productive. These moves set the stage for the huge egg-producing factories that we know today.
So when egg prices go back to normal, and you return to the grocery store to stock up, consider the process that it takes to make those eggs—a method that lead to a mass death of chickens by a disease that spread like wildfire.
As Lawler writes, “But we might pause, if only between bites of a chicken burrito, to ponder the role of this once-royal and now frequently belittled creature in making possible our fast-paced urban world.”
Greta Weber is a digital news intern at National Geographic who loves sandwiches and Anthony Bourdain. Her Twitter handle is @gretamweber.