Economic boom, techno-scientific advancements, and industrial development: Chicken becomes broiler
With the beginning of the Cold War, techno-scientific advancements and new organisational forms in the agrifood sector fostered the development of the broiler industry. US innovations spilled over to other industrialised countries of the Western Bloc.
Which came first: chicken or egg? From an industrial perspective, this question has a definitive answer: the egg came first. The poultry industry was initially specialised in the mass production and commercialisation of this specific product. The modern broiler, a chicken specifically bred and raised for meat production, was developed only in the mid-20th century, at the beginning of the Cold War. Several factors contributed to the birth of the modern industrial broiler. The most important were the techno-scientific advancements in animal breeding, genetic improvement, and nutrition; the development of vertically integrated agribusiness firms; the increased popularity of poultry meat among consumers. The 1948 “Chicken of Tomorrow” national contest symbolises the efforts by the US government and poultry industry to find the best chicken for meat consumption. The US was indeed a crucial site for these developments, which eventually became widespread across industrialised countries -particularly in the Western Bloc.
Screen capture from the documentary “Chicken of Tomorrow,” by the National Chicken-of-Tomorrow Committee. 1948. (Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/Chickeno1948)
After WWII, Italy witnessed its economic boom years, which also implied increased industrialization. In this period, large-scale poultry farming also began. The poultry processing plant in the video below is presented as a “rational” plant, a language evoking the fascist propaganda for domestic poultry farming that we discussed in the past blog posts. However, there are significant changes in the register and underlying message. Italy is now a Republic, and poultry farming is not anymore tied to fascist propaganda on autarky and national independence. Instead, the speaker presents the footage in a playful way, humanising the chickens’ activities: the industrial poultry farm is called a “hotel for chickens”, where animals are engaged in a human-like daily routine. For example, while the camera shows a vast room full of squawking chickens, the speaker jokingly observes how “after lunch, political debates inevitably begin!”. This connection between playfulness and humanisation can be found in several videos on industrial poultry farming from the post-war period.
“Even chickens have their hotel” – Poultry farm in the Florence countryside. La Settimana Incom, December 28, 1955 (Archivio Luce Cinecittà)
The Italian poultry industry emerged in the late 1950s, as discussed by Alessandra Tessari and Andrew Godley (2014). The first attempts to establish modern poultry farms began in Southern Italy, but the most important poultry companies were established in the North. The first large-scale industrial poultry producer in Italy was CipZoo, founded in 1957 in Brescia. The company greatly benefited from Marshall Plan funds and other forms of US aid. Another video from 1965, shows poultry production plants by Societá Italiana Dressing, a parent company of CipZoo. We can notice many female workers, showing that poultry processing in Republican Italy remained a women’s job, as much as poultry farming was in Fascist Italy.
Women were not only involved in the production of poultry as factory workers, but also played a crucial role in establishing new consumption patterns. Whether they had a paid job or not, women were typically responsible for planning and preparing family meals. Chicken meat was once considered a luxury meal. In the late 1940s one kilo of chicken meat was twice as expensive as the same quantity of veal (Tessari And Godley, 2014:1063). Things started to change with the emergence of industrial poultry farming and processing in the 1950s. Chicken meat became cheaper and more readily available. In the same period, new household technologies also became increasingly affordable and widespread, promising to make food preparation easier and more efficient. Eventually, these promises failed to materialise: as discussed by scholars such as Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) and Cynthia Cockburn and Susan Ormrod (1993), domestic technologies did not reduce women’s household chores, but instead contributed to maintain traditional gender roles and labour division in the household, for example by adding new chores and cleaning standards enabled by technological development. Nonetheless, in the 1950s, it was quite exceptional that a whole chicken could easily be cooked thanks to the new electric stove, “even while you are not there,” as the commercial below claims. The electric stove offered “complete automation, energy saving, guarantee of superior production” –not much different from the new advancements in industrial poultry farming and processing.
“Enough jumping through hoops” – AEG kitchen commercial, 1950 (UPAadvgraffiti)
New industrial technologies were, however, not enough to win the hearts of Italian housewives. CipZoo started its production with US spin-chilling technologies, obtaining so-called “wet chickens”. These were oven-ready chickens, but they were inconvenient to handle and not as visually appealing as the typical free range “dry chickens.” For these reasons, Italian housewives did not prefer to buy this product, as reported by the President of the National Union of Poultry Producers (UNA), to Tessari and Godley (2014:1067-8). Nor butchers were enthusiastic about the industrial wet chickens, as they required new refrigerating units to be properly stored. CipZoo’s leadership in the Italian poultry sector was to end soon. A new company, Arena, became the market leader by pioneering new refrigerating technologies and adopting successful marketing and retail strategies –we will look at its story in the next post.
Boyd, William. ‘Making Meat: Science, Technology, and American Poultry Production’. Technology and Culture 42, no. 4 (2001): 631–64.
Cockburn, Cynthia, and Susan Ormrod. Gender and Technology in the Making. SAGE Publications, 1993.
Galusky, Wyatt. Protein Machines, Technology, and the Nature of the Future. Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.
Scarpellini, Emanuela. Food and Foodways in Italy from 1861 to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Schwartz Cowan, Ruth. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. Basic Books, 1983.
Tessari, Alessandra, and Andrew Godley. ‘Made in Italy. Made in Britain. Quality, Brands and Innovation in the European Poultry Market, 1950–80’. Business History 56, no. 7 (2014): 1057–83.