Whenever John Blake hears someone assail the modern-day poultry industry, he’s often reminded of one of the most compelling books he ever read about a time when meat was collected, dressed and sold in a radically different way than it is now.

Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper” recounts the life and times of Eldred Nathaniel Woodcock, a seasoned Pennsylvania outdoorsman who made a living for more than half a century hunting and trapping animals for downtown Philadelphia food markets.

For Woodcock, this not only involved killing the animals, but also gutting them onsite, tagging their carcasses and dragging them to the roadside, where they eventually were loaded on wagons and carried to downtown markets.

“When you shopped at a downtown Philadelphia market in the 19th century you didn’t choose among meat from  animals raised in a feedlot — you only could choose from among the meats that were available on that day, if it happened to be bear, venison or rabbit.”

“None of it was farm-raised; none of it was inspected; none of it passed through the food system that we all take for granted today,” says Blake, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System poultry specialist and Auburn University professor in the Department of Poultry Science.

He and his colleagues say consumers should draw a critical lesson from this account. 

“It’s interesting because it puts the last 100-plus years into perspective — where we started and where we are today in terms of processed foods, whether it happens to be poultry, beef or pork,” Blake says.

Throughout their careers Blake and other members of the Extension poultry team have been trying to debunk what they consider to be unfair, if not baseless, accounts about how poultry are raised and processed.

In the end, though, they contend the answer is best expressed in terms of how much has changed since Eldred Woodcock trudged through the forests with his rifle and animal traps more than a century ago.

“Not too long ago, the issue was about finding food, not so much how it looked or where it came from,” says Extension specialist and Auburn Poultry Science Professor Sarge Biligili.

Expanding population growth rapidly out-stripped the ability of hunters and trappers to supply basic food needs. In time, market forces and scientific research were brought to bear on this problem, leading to what we know today as the U.S. poultry industry, Bilgili says.

The U.S. poultry industry alone produces between 170 million and 175 million chickens a week to meet demand. 

Blake describes this system as dynamic to underscore the fact that the industry, by its nature, requires continuous upticks in productivity and unrelenting innovation to stay ahead of consumer preferences.