In In February 1948, 40 farmers from around the U.S. put 720 chicken eggs on planes and trains and sent them to a small town near Washington, D.C., to be part of a contest.
Once the eggs arrived in Easton, Maryland, workers unpacked them and labeled each tray by number to disguise the eggs’ breeder. When the birds hatched, their wings were tagged with a metal number. Four weeks later, the chickens were carefully examined for size, color, and weight.
They were looking for what contest organizers called the “Chicken of Tomorrow.” At the time, as had been the case for centuries, chickens were raised for their eggs — all around the world, only the wealthy ate chicken as a main dish. The industry wanted to change that, and was betting on chickens becoming cheaper than beef and pork, then the most popular meat, if they could be bred to grow larger while eating less feed. The contest was part of their planned revolution.
The beginning of this revolt kicked off with the picking of the winning breeds: the New Hampshire, the White Rocks, and Dark Cornish flocks. Soon after, two British companies — which eagerly signed franchise agreements so they could also profit from the contest — brought the prize-winning American chickens to East Anglia and Edinburgh and went on to develop even bigger birds for the U.K. market. And they did, creating the two main chickens that we eat today, known as Cobb 500 and Ross 308. Today, 90 percent of the 23 billion chickens eaten every year are either Cobb or Ross broilers.
The Cobb 500, based on the White Rocks breed, is owned by Cobb-Vantress Inc., which in turn is owned by Tyson Foods Inc., today the world’s second largest livestock company. Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, Arkansas, also sells beef and pork under the Tyson brand and processed foods via labels like Jimmy Dean sausage, Hillshire Farm cold cuts, and Ball Park hot dogs.
The Cobb 500 was made in the early 1970s to suit the tastes of buyers at U.K. stores like Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. “M&S wanted to sell fresh, rather than frozen…