When a sports fan bites into a chicken wing on Super Bowl Sunday, there’s a good chance the rest of that bird’s body parts will be scattered around the world. Its breasts will probably be at the local grocery store, its drumsticks will be in Mexico and its feet will be on their way to Hong Kong.
Americans will eat 1.38 billion chicken wings over Super Bowl weekend, according to estimates from the National Chicken Council (NCC), a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization. Canadians will eat 74 million wings, according to the Chicken Farmers of Canada.
That means approximately 364 million chickens will die before Tom Brady‘s New England Patriots play in their ninth championship game on Sunday, in a showdown with the Los Angeles Rams. More than a billion chickens have likely been slaughtered for Super Bowl games involving Brady over his career, according to chicken farmers’ historical estimates.
But while chicken wings have become a finger-food staple for major sports events like the Super Bowl, they’re only one part of a much bigger industry, and four parts of the whole bird (two segments per wing).
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Here’s where chicken wings come from – and what happens to the rest of the chickens slaughtered for football every winter.
The missing piece from every chicken wing
A chicken’s wing has three segments, but North Americans typically only eat two of them: the single-boned “drumette,” which connects to the chicken’s shoulder, and the “flat” or “wingette,” a double-boned segment akin to the chicken’s forearm.
The third and often overlooked piece is known as the “flapper.” It’s a pointy piece of skin and cartilage at the tip of the wing that gets lopped off and left out of most chicken wing shipments in North America. However, it doesn’t necessarily go to waste.
U.S. and Canadian farmers will often export chicken wings with the flappers still attached to Asian markets such as Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia. Those markets have more of an appetite for the wingtips, according to Ronald Kean, an expert in poultry production at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The egg comes first
It takes approximately 10 weeks to raise a so-called “broiler,” or meat chicken, from an egg, Kean says. And unlike egg-laying chickens, a broiler spends its life outside of a cage, although not necessarily outdoors.
“The eggs would be incubated in a hatchery, and that takes three weeks,” Kean told Global News by phone from Wisconsin.
Newly-hatched chicks are taken to a large, open barn where they’re housed with approximately 40,000 other chickens. The chickens eat corn or soybean meal and spend seven weeks maturing before they’re captured by hand and taken for slaughter, Kean says. A mature broiler weighs about 3 kilograms when it is slaughtered.
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Kean says the birds grow quickly, but that’s due to “really good genetics and good feed,” not hormones. “We don’t use any hormones in poultry,” he said.
Mature chickens are collected and taken to a processing plant where they are stunned, slaughtered, plucked, gutted, washed, chilled and inspected. Producers then chop up the chicken and freeze it for shipping or package it for the grocery store.
Humans consume most of the chicken meat, although certain parts might be rendered into fat and used in pet food. Even the feathers get reused as stuffing or ground up into animal feed or fertilizer.
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White or dark meat?
The U.S. produces approximately 9-billion broiler chickens every year, while Canada raises 720 million annually, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Chicken Farmers of Canada. Full-sized broiler chickens are larger than the roasted chickens you might find in the grocery store, and the majority of them are sold in pieces.
A broiler chicken can be cut up into wings, breasts and leg quarters (i.e. thighs and drumsticks). However, the demand for breast meat is much higher because people in the U.S. and Canada prefer it over dark meat. Breast meat is also used to produce the most popular chicken products including nuggets, burgers and deli meat.
“You can’t just make breasts (and wings), so then you end up with all these other things that need to find a home,” Claire Mezoughem, an agricultural economist with the USDA, told Global News.
“We’re really just going to export everything else off of the bird.”
Breast meat remains the most expensive form of chicken, but the value of wings has surged since they became popular in the 1990s, according to Kean. “Wings are a big part of the sales,” he said.
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American farmers exported more than 3 million metric tons, or 16 per cent, of all the chicken meat they produced in 2017, while Canada shipped out approximately 11 per cent, or 134,110 metric tons. The vast majority of those exports are the dark-meat leg quarters.
“It’s all about the leg quarters,” Mezoughem said. “We’re sending the leg quarters to middle-income and developing countries because basically, those are the countries that demand a lower price of animal protein.” People in those countries also prefer dark meat, she said.
Angola and Mexico import most of the dark meat shipped out of Canada and the U.S., while Hong Kong and other Asian nations import the chicken feet, according to the USDA.
China used to take most of the feet and Russia used to import most of the dark meat, but those trade relationships have declined over the last five years, Mezoughem said.
“The world has changed,” she said.
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Nevertheless, the world’s appetite for chicken is stronger than it’s ever been. Global chicken production is expected to grow by 2 per cent this year, to a record of 97.8 million tons of meat, according to the USDA.
Forecasters predict global exports will hit a record 11.6 million tons in 2019, thanks to “robust Asian demand, particularly from Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines.” The USDA also expects resilient demand in Angola, Cuba and Ghana.
The world will eat 96-million metric tons of chicken this year, according to USDA projections.
In other words, when Americans demand a massive pile of chicken wings, the world will be ready to eat the rest of the bird.