Tough Times Change Consumers' Chicken Choices

US - Tough economic times are forcing consumers to trade down from more expensive red meats to poultry, and from chicken breast to whole birds, thighs and drumsticks. Top executives from the leading poultry companies highlight these and other changes in the market.
calendar icon 27 May 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

For 25 years, it has been all about breasts. No legs, no thighs, no skin and bones but according to, the bird is back, the whole bird, as well as chicken thighs and drumsticks, as consumers look for new ways to save money during tough economic times.

"We're seeing a lot of stepping down in the grocery store," says Lampkin Butts, president and COO of poultry producer, Sanderson Farms. "Consumers are stepping down from steaks to ground meat, from red meat to chicken, and from boneless, skinless breasts to whole birds."

A quarter-century ago, 35 per cent of chicken sales were of bone-in, skin-on whole birds, Mr Butts says. In 2008, whole birds accounted for only eight per cent of sales. This year, they are hovering between 10 and 11 per cent.

The popularity of whole rotisserie chickens also is having an impact on consumer preferences, as are fast-food and quick-service restaurants. Late last year, both KFC and Popeyes pushed dark meat in their marketing campaigns, said Monty Henderson, president and COO of George's poultry company.

Even when they are featuring boneless, skinless chicken breasts, restaurants are focusing on new uses, including chicken biscuits, popcorn chicken (breaded breast bits) and 'tanglers', Applebee's new appetiser that features breaded and fried chicken breast slices topped with Parmesan cheese and served with marinara sauce for dipping. One poultry producer called it chicken's answer to calamari, one of the best-selling appetisers on restaurant menus.

Bernard Leonard, group vice president/food service for Tyson Foods, says ethnic factors play a role in the renewed popularity of dark-meat chicken.

"Hispanics consume more poultry than other groups," he said, noting their preference for dark meat, which is more flavourful. Chinese restaurant chain, Panda Express, uses only dark meat in its chicken dishes.

In addition to supermarkets and restaurants, contestant recipes at this year's National Chicken Cooking Contest – held earlier this month at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio – moved beyond white meat chicken.

Of the nine finalists' recipes, five featured boneless skinless breasts; one used a mix of bone-in, skin-on pieces; one used chicken thighs; one used ground chicken; and one used a whole bird.

In the end, no chicken breasts made it to the winners' circle as judges awarded the $50,000 grand prize to Chinese Chicken Burgers With Rainbow Sesame Slaw; the other prize, the $10,000 Judges' Choice winner, went to a whole Butterflied Chicken with Herbs and Sticky Lemon.

Judges cited grand-prize winner Brigitte Nguyen of Kentucky for her creative use of aromatics such as garlic, lemon grass, scallions, soy sauce and sesame oil, which she mixed into ground chicken before shaping the mixture into burgers, grilling them and topping them with a spicy slaw and Sriracha-lime-mayonnaise sauce.

"I like to make burgers, and chicken works well because it takes on the flavour of what you mix into it," she said of her successful recipe.

Judges' Choice winner, Elise Lalor, of Washington says she was inspired to develop her recipe using a whole chicken because "I wanted to learn how to butterfly a chicken. I thought 'I'm going to go ahead and cut that chicken'. I did four or five, and I'm not afraid any more."

Finalist Ruth Kendrick of Utah picked chicken thighs over breasts for her Ginger Scented Honey Hoisin Chicken Thigh With Sesame entry for non-economic reasons.

"I like thighs because they stay moist a lot longer and they have a strong flavour that holds up well to the other ingredients in the recipe. I tried breasts one time and they weren't nearly as good,” she told "That they're cheaper is just a bonus."

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