South Africa Is in a Massive Cock Fight with the Congressional Chicken Caucus

While the US has allowed Chardonnay from Stellenbosch to flow duty-free into American goblets since 2000, taxes imposed on Yankee bird meat that same year have impeded US chicken sales to the growing South African market.

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Feb 26 2015, 6:10pm

Photo via Flickr user garrettziegler

The Congressional Chicken Caucus of the United States has been crying foul lately over what it regards to be unfair treatment by the South African government. The issue at hand is, of course, chicken—more specifically, the harsh tariffs the South African government has imposed on the import of good ol' American chicken parts. While the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has allowed Chardonnay from Stellenbosch to flow duty-free into American goblets since 2000, taxes imposed on Yankee bird meat that same year have impeded US chicken sales to the growing South African market.

Unsurprisingly, the Chicken Caucus is not pleased.

Although the dispute has ruffled feathers for the better part of the last decade, the issue is coming to a head now as AGOA goes before the Obama administration for renewal later this year. South Africa justifies the tariff as a response to what it claims to be illegal US "dumping" of cheap poultry into African markets. Senators from the chicken-producing states of Georgia and Delaware counter that these sanctions are a violation of international law. While South African and American chicken groups are working to find a third-party solution, US lawmakers threaten to simply cut South Africa out of AGOA altogether for its affront to the sanctity of US poultry. If they are successful, the move will severely hurt both nations' economies and impede $3.5 billion worth of South African goods from reaching American shores.

Each corner of the globe was flooded with a different American chicken part—the breast staying at home, the dark meat heading to Russia, and the feet off to China.

Needless to say, things are heating up in this round of the global chicken war, a series of trade battles that the Land of the Free has been fighting for the past half century to ensure that there is an American chicken in every pot. The advent of the commercial broiler industry, coupled with advances in scientific agriculture and a government program aimed at making the fattest chickens the world has ever known, meant that by the 1960s the United States was a nation overflowing with fowl. And since there was a limit to how much chicken breast its red-meat-and-potatoes-loving citizenry would chow down, the US started exporting poultry abroad. Its first target was Europe, a chicken-friendly land where the bird was still relatively scarce and expensive. And when America exports its products, it exports real hard. The US began sending millions of pounds of frozen chicken to the Common Market each week. By 1961, American chicken totally dominated the low-end European poultry palate, even causing per capita consumption of chicken in places like West Germany to rise by 23 percent in a single year.

But why stop at one continent? As economies emerged and US chicken producers became evermore efficient at growing plump poultry, each corner of the globe was flooded with a different American chicken part—the breast staying at home, the dark meat heading to Russia, and the feet off to China.

Oftentimes, these trade deals were advantageous for all, as when George W. Bush aided Russia in joining the World Trade Organization as part of a poultry deal in 2003; or when the frozen chicken formed an essential component of a food aid plan, such as the whole birds intended to aid in Europe's reconstruction following World War II or the "Bush Legs" meant to help the Soviet Union overcome its communist hangover.

But more often than not, these trade battles have become politically ridiculous and economically deadly. Reacting to the first wave of American chickens invading their shores in the 1960s, the Common Market imposed a harsh tariff on the bird to protect both domestic producers and to defend against the dangers that these hormone-pumped birds posed to French male virility.

Thanks to frozen chicken and windbag politicians, Detroit is now a ghost town.

Naturally, the United States responded with a threat to immediately remove its military support from NATO and then set about to impose an even larger duty on the import of light trucks, among other goods, mainly as a big fuck you to Volkswagen.

The tariff on light trucks has since been declared one of the stupidest taxes in US history, one that scholars argue directly caused the downfall of the American auto industry by insulating car makers from competition for the past 50 years. Big money in cowboy-friendly F-150s meant little innovation in other sectors of the industry, allowing inventive and high-quality Japanese and Korean passenger cars to dominate the vehicle market in the 1980s and 1990s. Thanks to frozen chicken and windbag politicians, Detroit is now a ghost town. Similarly absurd rhetoric and actions have gone back and forth between the United States and Russia for years, with Russia continually bypassing international trade laws by invoking "sanitation issues" and sending veterinarians with military-style ranks ("Chicken Napoleons") to inspect and blacklist American slaughter facilities.

So as global economists and chicken farmers alike watch the massive cock fight going down in South Africa—and a similar one that's been raging for years in India, and the ever-continuing debate over the chicken trade with China—it's important to remember that these skirmishes pack a lot more punch than one might expect from a tiny, tasty bird. After all, there's big money and big pride behind any nation's chickens. And while the US has yet to abolish the chicken tax, this current game of international chicken may very well affect the type of wine or car or Die Antwoord album you'll buy this time next year.