Last week, India issued the first import permits allowing frozen poultry and breeding stock from the United States to enter India. It has been a long battle for American exporters to break down trade barriers erected at the behest of Indian producers. Back in July 2016, Amiti Sen wrote a piece in The Hindu headlined, “American chicken legs may soon be walking into Indian stores”. Last month, the same writer published an article in the same publication with an almost identical headline, “American chicken legs set to walk into India”. India has tried every trick in the book to stop those American chicken legs in their tracks but, having lost its case at the World Trade Organisation, seems to have run out of excuses. Besides, the last thing the Narendra Modi government wants is some executive from a poultry farmers’ association whispering a few words in Donald Trump’s ear about unfair trade practices adopted by India.

It seems strange that Indian producers should be so chicken in the face of imports. Isn’t industrialised chicken farming well established in India, with companies like Venky’s, Zorabian and Godrej having achieved significant economies of scale? I recall a time when chicken and goat meat used to command the same price. Now, broilers can be bought for about Rs 175 per kilogramme, while goat meat costs over twice that amount. The relative drop in chicken prices is a consequence of massive production gains. In 1975, India produced 269 million kilos of goat meat, and just 100 million kilos of chicken. Fifteen years later, goat meat production had risen to 458 million kilos, but chicken output had overtaken it, jumping to 527 million kilos. Currently, we produce about 950 million kilos of goat meat, and nearly twice as much chicken, at 1,800 million kilos. Goat meat production has multiplied just 3.5 times in 40 years, while chicken output has grown 18 fold.

The reason for the disparity is that goats are difficult to breed at industrial levels. Most are raised in tiny herds by owners who barely make ends meet. A corollary of this small-scale form of production is the absence of any PR campaign on behalf of goat meat. Indians get all their environmental and nutritional information from lands where red meat is synonymous with beef and pork, and apply it unthinkingly to our local context. Not only do goats burden the land far less than grain-fed cattle, goat meat is extraordinarily lean, containing between 2 grams and 3 grams of fat per 100 grams, less than a third the amount in beef, and also substantially lower than chicken with the skin on. Skinless chicken contains slightly less fat, but goat still wins out for those who can afford it, because the broiler on your plate is probably stuffed with antibiotics, and perhaps growth hormones.

Not quite farm fresh

Factory farming is an ugly thing. Chickens raised for meat have been bred to grow to slaughter-weight three times as quickly as it traditionally took. The bones of young chickens can barely support the weight of their massive breasts, and many end up crippled. The birds that survive are threatened by an unsanitary, overcrowded environment where diseases spread easily. The solution is antibiotics, which prevent illness and bolster growth. That solution, unfortunately, creates a new problem in the form of antibiotic resistance arising in birds and being passed on to humans.

The problem is pronounced in India, where effective regulatory control is non-existent. Just as you can go to your neighbouring chemist and buy any antibiotic without prescription, there is little that stops poultry farmers from using the strongest medicine to maximise output. A second issue is the lack of adequate sewage treatment. A poultry farm worker who is infected by resistant bugs will pass those into water bodies from where they could spread widely.

In January, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism produced a study in collaboration with The Guardian that exposed the widespread employment of colistin, an old antibiotic now used as a last resort against certain multi-drug resistant infections. Venky’s, a major chicken producer that also sells veterinary medicines, markets colistin in India as a growth enhancer. While the company is doing nothing illegal, its practices will only enhance India’s well-earned reputation of being a hotspot for superbugs.

The flipside of the dangers and horrors I have described is that large-scale production has led to chicken and eggs becoming affordable for a greater percentage of India’s protein-deficient population. It is difficult to see the country’s nutritional problems being resolved without industrialised poultry farming continuing to flourish. This brings me back to the question I posed at the start: how is it that American producers threaten to undercut Indians despite the rapid strides in Indian poultry farming? The answer involves cultural and dietary preferences, highlighted by a recently resolved trade skirmish over chicken between the United States and China.

If the Americans love chicken breast and the Chinese chicken feet, Indians favour chicken legs. (Credit: YouTube)
If the Americans love chicken breast and the Chinese chicken feet, Indians favour chicken legs. (Credit: YouTube)

All about the legs

When I was a graduate student in England, I had a Taiwanese-American and a Korean-American friend, both of whom were excellent cooks. I once witnessed them joking about white American tastes in food. The conversation revealed that white Americans loved chicken breast, which East Asians considered flavourless. Those preferences had a racial echo, since chicken, while classified as white meat, has dark parts, specifically the thighs and wings. My friends, having cooked chicken, innocently asked white friends who came into the kitchen, “Breast or leg?”, and secretly snickered after the predictable response, “Breast, please”.

If American farmers could breed chickens with two breasts and one leg, they would do so. But since genetics is not currently capable of viably bringing such atrocities into the world, they restrict themselves to producing the largest possible breasts in the quickest possible time. A side effect of this is that American chickens have very large feet. While the Chinese do not care for large chickens, they love large chicken feet, which Americans discard entirely. As a consequence, the United States exports a massive amount of chicken feet each year to China. That trade was threatened after the United States blocked imports of cooked, tinned chicken from China on health grounds. The dispute ran from 2009 to 2017 but has now been resolved.

If the Chinese love chicken feet, Indians love chicken legs. I think part of the reason is because we eat with our hands. Its much more fun to hold a tangdi kabab by the bone while biting into the flesh than to isolate the edible bits with a knife and fork. That is why the two articles I quoted earlier from The Hindu speak specifically of chicken legs, and not of chicken imports in general. And that is why American giants like Tyson Foods will be able to price their offerings competitively in India despite costs involved in shipping frozen products for long distances. They can offer their local customers breast fillets, pack off surplus feet to China, and legs to China and India, a peculiar dismembering that encapsulates the global food trade.