The number of chickens in the U.S. is growing, and chicken production has even overtaken pig farming to become the top source of reared meat worldwide. The U.S., despite having only about 4 percent of the global population, is leading the production of broiler chickens. The rise in global meat production can be attributed to rising incomes around the world, creating opportunities for meat consumption rather than cheaper, plant-based alternatives. Against this backdrop, it is important to see just how much, and in what forms, chicken production has grown, and to chart its impact on animal welfare and the environment.
How Many Chickens Are in the U.S.?
As of 2020, the available data indicates that there are an estimated 518.3 million chickens in the U.S. Given the global trend of rising chicken production, this number might increase for 2021 and the years to come. However, the coronavirus pandemic and increasing awareness about veganism may slightly influence the rate of growth of this industry. Chickens in the U.S. are mostly kept under the factory farming system, where they face an unbroken process of commodification and abuse from birth to death.
Number of Chickens in the World
There are currently 25.9 billion chickens living in the world, according to the latest data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Most of these chickens are in China and the U.S., and more than half of them are in Asia. China is also the world’s leading egg producer. Chickens clearly outnumber humans on the planet by a massive number, but most of them have been bred to be used by humans.
Chicken Production by State
Of the millions of chickens in the U.S., about 60 million are in Iowa. Iowa is also notorious for cruelty to chickens, with farms often found practicing the battery cage system and suffocating chickens. Chicken farming in Iowa adds about $2 billion to the state’s economy. Such profits are made possible by rearing chickens with maximal efficiency and minimal resources devoted to their welfare.
The U.S. happens to be the top broiler chicken producer in the world. As the name suggests, the sole purpose for which these chickens are bred is to be put in broilers and cooked. Georgia and Alabama contribute the most to broiler meat production. Other states heavily involved in the rearing of chickens include Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, Arkansas, and California.
In terms of egg production, the U.S. ranks second in the world. Among U.S. states, Iowa is the leading egg producer by a big margin, with Indiana and Ohio following behind.
In 2020 9.8 billion broiler chicks were hatched in the U.S. Most of these chickens are killed after a lifespan of just 45 days. Innumerable studies have captured the cruelty and suffering in the broiler chicken industry.
Layer hens bred in the U.S. produced 9.54 billion eggs in March 2021. Chickens in the wild usually lay 10-12 eggs a year, limited by the stress their bodies undergo when laying. However, modern American egg production involves several methods that combine to force chickens to lay about 300 eggs a year.
Approximately 925 million pounds of chicken meat is kept in cold storage in the U.S. Of these, the breasts of chickens occupy the most space at 221 million pounds. Other meat from slaughtered chickens includes their feet, legs, thighs, wings, and full chickens with all their body parts intact. There are about 39 million eggs sourced from chickens in cold storage at any one time.
In March 2021, 840 million chickens were slaughtered in the U.S. Of this number, 830 million were killed young, and only about 8 million chickens were killed when mature. The U.S. also killed about 15 million turkeys, a number that goes up during Thanksgiving. These are numbers collated from federal inspections—the actual numbers could be much higher.
There are about 390 million laying hens in the U.S. These hens produced about 111.6 billion eggs in 2020. That is roughly 285 eggs per hen per year, about 30 times the number of eggs that chickens would lay in the wild, free and unabused.
U.S. Per Capita Egg Consumption
The average U.S. consumer bought 293 eggs in 2019, with this number projected to fall slightly in 2021 to 288. Most of the hens used for laying eggs are kept in tiny cages, where they spend their lives in misery. Though cage-free eggs sound like a pleasant alternative, the laying hens still suffer from overcrowding and air pollution, and the time they spend outside is still very limited.
U.S. Per Capita Chicken Consumption
Broiler meat is the most consumed meat in the U.S., with an average person eating 96.4 pounds per capita. Other types of chicken meat come in at just 1.4 pounds per capita. One of the top sellers of fresh, frozen, and processed chicken meat in the U.S. is Tyson Foods. Apart from being one of the leaders in chicken production, it is also one of the leaders when it comes to animal cruelty.
Chickens reared for Tyson Foods have been kicked, beaten, bludgeoned, overstuffed, and run over by machinery. Chickens’ heads have also been ripped off as they are killed. Tyson chicken has also caused safety concerns in the U.S., with many of their products repeatedly recalled. JBS USA and Cargill are also among the top chicken processing companies, with JBS generating 34.9 billion dollars in sales revenue in 2020.
Broiler chicken was the largest U.S. meat export in 2020 and formed 92 percent of total U.S. poultry exports. The U.S. exported 7.371 billion pounds of broiler meat, making it the largest broiler meat exporter in the world. Among the top countries importing U.S. broiler meat are Mexico, China, Taiwan, Cuba, and Canada. In 2020 Mexico imported 112 million pounds of broiler meat from the U.S., far more than any other country.
How Many Chickens Are Killed Each Year?
Every year 9.3 billion chickens are killed for meat in the U.S. alone. The figure for the entire world is even more heartbreaking, at 72 billion. These chickens often live in a toxic environment, are subjected to genetic manipulation, and face a lot of stress throughout their lives thanks to being kept in one place and stuffed into small cages with other chickens.
What You Can Do
In 2020 over half of the plant-based protein purchases in the U.S. were of vegan chicken alternatives. In fact, a recent survey revealed that U.S. consumers are shifting to plant-based alternatives to meats like chicken because they prefer the taste! Moreover, with plant-based foods like grains, pulses, and veggies being cheaper than meat and dairy, there is a clear pathway for more consumers to go vegan and lower these statistics on chicken farming.
Let’s reflect on one number: 72 billion. 72 billion sentient chickens are killed every year for a meal that we probably forget about—a meal that can be substituted with alternatives. If one just looks at the ethics of it, it is clearly subjugating a species because we feel that our species takes precedence over theirs. This power dynamic is mirrored in many other hierarchies too. We have been socialized since childhood to categorize certain animals as food, and certain animals as playmates.
Literally every other species in the world has been marked for use by humans—some for circuses, some for hunting, some for testing, and some for eating. We can choose to reject this power binary by going vegan and moving towards total liberation from subjugation—within our own species and alongside other species. As humans, we have been taught that nature is outside, that it exists beyond us. But are we not an integral part of nature? We need to reconnect with the lives and experiences that bring us all together, even when we do not realize it.
Think of this pandemic. People are losing their lives to a zoonotic virus. But there are people to share your grief, to understand you. What about the billions of animals who suffer silently, whose grief we are never able to empathize with? What about the communities of chickens who never get to experience what thriving means? In fact, some of us who do not even have basic support during this pandemic might be able to relate to circumstances in which no one is there to share our grief.
Chickens are living creatures, who we as humans have no claim over. It’s time to change these numbers and shift to locally accessible plant-based alternatives for good.
Nimisha (she/they) a is a freelance journalist primarily in the realm of sexuality, Indian politics and animal agriculture. They are a growth strategist, and they successfully run their own collaborative trekking project in India. They are a personal growth coach using alternative therapies.Their life and work is dedicated towards a just and equitable world.