August 2012
From the State Vet's Office

A Chicken in Every Pot!

As a person who appreciates worthless trivia, when I decided to give this month’s column the title, "A Chicken in Every Pot," I decided to see what the history of that quote was. The quote was attributed to Herbert Hoover as a slogan for the 1928 presidential campaign, "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." A little more research suggests the origins of the quote can be traced back to 17th century France when Henry IV said he wished his peasants would enjoy "a chicken in his pot every Sunday." I cannot find any information confirming if Henry’s wish ever came true. I can’t find any information about the poultry industry in France in the 17th century; although apparently French hens did make good Christmas gifts. Possibly Henry IV sparked a vision that later would have France become the number one poultry producer in Europe and the fourth globally in poultry production.

I suppose you’re asking yourself, "What does that have to do with the Alabama State Veterinarian?" Well, back to "a chicken in every pot." Being second nationally in broiler production in 2010, I believe we are doing our share of the work to make sure there can be a chicken in every pot….or skillet…or on every grill….or at every drive-through. I want to point out how the sections for which I am responsible interface with the different categories of the Alabama poultry industry to help fulfill that dream of Herbert Hoover or King Henry IV or whoever else would like to see a chicken in every pot. Many of you involved in the poultry industry, either directly or indirectly, may be aware of the following facts. The poultry industry is generally divided into three commercial categories and two non-commercial, backyard or small farm chickens.

The first commercial category is broilers. These are the chickens you find in the meat case at the grocery store or buy at KFC or other restaurants and fast food outlets. These type farms make up the majority of the poultry farms in Alabama. In fact, in 2010, Alabama marketed 1.02 billion birds, which works out to be about 20 million a week — if my calculator is working properly. Even though in 2010 broilers accounted for $2.8 billion in on-farm receipts, 60 percent of Alabama’s agriculture revenue, rising feed and utility costs put a fair amount of pressure on the industry.

The second category is breeders. These are the hens and roosters that are the parents to the chicks that are placed on the broiler farms. (I put these as the second category and broilers as the first because I believe the chicken came first, then the egg.) There is about one breeder farm to every 10 broiler farms. These breeder birds spend the first few weeks of their lives on pullet farms hanging around eating and becoming mature enough to reproduce. When they reach a mature age, they are moved to the farms where they lay eggs. These eggs are taken to hatcheries where they incubate until it is time for the broiler chicks to come out of their eggs and take their place in the agriculture community. While the health of all poultry is important, the health of the breeder is especially important because the loss or even dramatic decrease in production on a breeder farm can affect so many broiler farms.

The third category of commercial poultry is the commercial table egg group. For those who are not allergic to eggs, this group plays a very important role in the food chain. Sometime when you have some time to kill in the grocery store, pick up several items and read the ingredient statements. Eggs are in a lot of food items. In addition, single men will never starve as long as there are eggs. Most men who can’t prepare anything else can cook an egg, even providing some variety either by scrambling, boiling or frying them. Alabama ranks 14th in the country in table egg production. Alabama’s laying flocks produced 2.1 billion eggs in 2010.

Non-commercial poultry is a pretty broad category encompassing all poultry that is not commercial. The majority of your non-commercial producers are people like me, hobby farmers, who keep some chickens around to produce eggs for the family or to eat. My 10 hens and a rooster probably put me at the far right side of the bell curve when it comes to non-commercial producers. There are, however, non-commercial producers who have show chickens and all sorts of fancy breeds as well as those who sell birds or eggs to individual buyers. These producers are an important group of people to our state because disease surveillance in these flocks is actually one of our first lines of defense to protect a multi-billion dollar industry in our state. Additionally, we work with the industry on environmental issues like dead bird disposal.

So what do we do to help ensure the viability of the poultry industry in Alabama? First we provide laboratory support to all segments of the industry. We do have to charge a fee for our services due to state budget constraints. However, the fee only covers part of the cost we incur. Our laboratory does hundreds of thousands of tests for the purpose of surveillance. Those tests will often detect a disease before it spreads and gets out of control. Certain diseases could result in a tremendous drop in egg production. If those diseases like mycoplasma spread to several flocks, it would have a large negative impact on the industry.

Every commercial flock in Alabama is tested for avian influenza (bird flu) before being processed. These avian influenza tests serve two purposes. Not only does it make sure the virus is not found in Alabama, but also serves to let the consumer have confidence we are looking out for them. I know technically there is little threat to the human population by your garden variety avian influenza virus. But many of you will remember a few years ago when people on the news predicted that by now an influenza pandemic caused by a mutated avian influenza virus would kill between one-third and one-half of the world’s population. When consumers heard that news, many said they would stop eating chicken if the virus was detected in the United States, even though it may not be a threat to humans.

We support the commercial table egg industry through helping make sure Salmonella enteritidis is not a threat to the consuming public. While SE is usually not life-threatening, often, if diarrhea is severe enough, a person could have to be hospitalized especially the very young, the very old and the immune compromised.

The National Poultry Improvement Plan is a way we monitor the health of non-commercial flocks that often do not have the immediate access to a poultry veterinarian the commercial producers have. Alabama ranks second nationally in NPIP non-commercial participation. That is a very good method to show the rest of the world we are testing so we can respond before a disease gets out of hand, again protecting the poultry industry in the state.

The poultry industry is very important to the economic well-being of the state of Alabama. We work very closely with the industry, both the commercial and non-commercial sides of the fence. We want to make sure the state flock is healthy and wholesome. And when there is a threat or disease, we want to help respond so we can put the fire out as rapidly as possible. It is our desire to make it possible for there to be "a chicken in every pot."

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.