The Internet has taken the mystery out of mystery meat. If you want to know what’s inside a chicken nugget, all you have to do is search. When you do, you’ll find results like a study from The American Journal of Medicine in which nuggets were analyzed and found to contain less meat than fat, along with more blood vessels than you’d hope. Add to your search the name of your favorite fast-food outlet, and you’ll find McDonald’s Canada offering tours of a McNugget factory in response to a question about whether nuggets are made with pink slime (McDonald’s stopped using mechanically separated poultry in its nuggets in 2003).
Search further, and you’ll get the history behind the deep-fried food product. The nugget was invented by Robert Baker, a Cornell professor charged with figuring out what to do with New York’s oversupply of chicken in the 1950s and ’60s. The nuggets took off in the late ’70s when the USDA’s first dietary guidelines on meat pushed consumers away from red to white meat, and McDonald’s pulled them along with its mass manufacture and marketing of the McNugget.
But that’s not what you should be searching for. The real question is not where the nugget came from but why it is possible. How, to use Tony Weis’s term, is the world’s diet becoming so “meatified?” Again, the Internet has the answers, but you need to know what to ask. So before you search, some pointers:
Gallus gallus domesticus is the world’s most popular bird. The chicken we eat today is very different from those consumed a century ago. Birds that once took nearly four months to come to market and were sold weighing 2.5 pounds are now ready in 47 days and weigh 6.2 pounds. Those figures are from the National Chicken Council, the lobbying arm representing 95 percent of the broiler chickens produced in the United States. In the firmament of agricultural-lobbying giants, they’re Big Bird.
The industry has been successful. From around 40 pounds of chicken per person per year available in 1977, there were 80 pounds per person in 2002, and 88.4 in 2015. Globally today, humans eat about 30 pounds of chicken a year, the level seen in the United States in the ’60s.
But, again, how? My colleague Jason W. Moore and I have traced a history of capitalism to seven cheap things: nature, work, care, food, money, energy, and lives. The modern chicken nugget shows how—in almost every case—the things that have made this breaded poultry confection are running out.