Per capital turkey consumption rose in 2021 for the first time in five years as brands and retailers promoted value-added cuts.
Which came first: consumers’ taste for chicken, or external market factors influencing demand?
In a still-unusual marketplace — at least compared with what’s become a bellwether pre-pandemic year of 2019 — converging circumstances and trends are pushing poultry to the head of the protein pack. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), per capita consumption of chicken is expected to edge up 0.11% this year, and turkey will rise 0.35%, while beef and pork are projected to dip by 0.34% and 0.20%, respectively. The USDA notes that the positive chicken performance continues a long stretch of yearly increases, while the uptick in turkey is the first year of growth for that protein since 2016.
Industry research likewise points to a strong year for poultry. The Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council (NCC) pegs chicken consumption at 96.9 pounds per person this year, versus 58.9 pounds for beef and 51.1 pounds for pork.
“Chicken has proven to be inflation-proof,” observes NCC spokesman Tom Super. “Consumers recognize that chicken prices are higher, but still plan to buy more chicken than other types of protein in the 12 months ahead. Chicken purchasers cite nutrition, value and versatility as the top reasons for consuming more chicken.”
The National Turkey Federation (NTF) weighs in that turkey consumption has nearly doubled since 1970 and reached 15.3 pounds per capita in 2021. The NTF, also based in Washington, D.C., reports that the number of value-added products in the turkey category has increased over the past few years and led turkey production to top 216.5 million birds last year.
As for other species, the USDA predicts that seafood consumption could rise as much as 10.5% in 2022. The meat alterative market, while garnering attention, remains small; according to the “Power of Meat” report published by Arlington, Va.-based FMI — The Food Industry Association, 9% of consumers eat plant-based meat alternatives on a weekly basis.
Poultry is well positioned for growth at the meat case for a variety of reasons. Ongoing surges in food prices, especially in beef, have led inflation-weary consumers to change up some of their habits at the meat case. In early August, Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods noted that demand for chicken was “extremely strong,” while demand for premium beef cuts has waned. Also that month, Chicago-based crop trader Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. shared that demand for chicken feed is higher than that for cattle feed, another demand signal.
During this wobbly economy, other extenuating factors have affected supply-and-demand curves for poultry. The much-ballyhooed chicken wing shortage over the past couple of years caused market glitches as retailers promoted chicken thighs when supplies were tight. Feed prices have been high at many points as geopolitical problems erupted and as supply chain hiccups caused shipping delays. Outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in certain parts of the country, including California, affected local supplies when flocks had to be culled.
Today, with crises related to COVID-19, supply chain backlogs and acute labor shortages easing somewhat compared with a year ago, poultry can be a sweet spot for grocers touting the price-value equation and diversity in offerings.
Capitalizing on consumers' use of air fryers, Tyson introduced a new line of heat-and-eat chicken nuggets, bites and strips.
Not Just Winging It
As Americans down a lot more chicken than any other proteins, they have more choices at the grocery store, too.
For example, although many people are back to full-swing or almost full-swing schedules, there are still many folks who continue to cook at home and are looking for solutions to save them time and hassle. Demand for cooked chicken — including but beyond the stalwart rotisserie chicken — is especially high.
“Consumer interest in high-protein diets is continuing to spur innovation in the chicken industry,” observes Super. “One example is cooked chicken. Companies are committing serious investments to ramp up production of cooked chicken to meet current and future demand. Investments are particularly devoted to automation and robotics as securing sufficient labor remains an operational challenge.”
Value-added poultry products are also making things easier and more interesting for shoppers. The venerable Butterball brand, for instance, offers both fresh and frozen seasoned turkey burgers. Another turkey brand, Jennie-O, has added a slew of fresh and frozen value-added items to its portfolio, including packages of taco-seasoned ground turkey.
In chicken, Harrisonburg, Va.-based Farmer Focus, a 100% USDA Organic and Humane Certified chicken company, offers culinary-inspired pre-seasoned varieties like Zesty Peruvian Lime, Rich Red Curry and Chophouse Seasoned.
Leading category brand Tyson is tapping into demand for flavor and convenience with its line of ready-to-use meal kits designed for particular cooking methods. Offerings include a hatch-green-chile-chicken-and-rice meal kit for Instant Pots, and a chicken-and-vegetables meal kit for slow cookers. Hitching onto the popularity of one-pan meals, Tyson offers kits for those applications, too, including a meal kit with roasted garlic chicken and parmesan mushroom risotto that can be prepared in a skillet in 15 minutes.
In addition to Tyson, other meal kit makers are providing varieties with easy, accessible poultry. New York-based Blue Apron, for example, recently teamed up with Walmart to offer non-subscription meal kits in varieties like Rosemary & Panko Chicken with Roasted Potatoes and Creamy Lemon Sauce.
The frozen and heat-and-eat categories are a particular hotbed of R&D activity. Based on the popularity of air fryers, Tyson launched a line of Air Fried chicken nuggets, bites and strips that can be cooked in an air fryer and contain 75% less fat than other fried chicken options. Meanwhile, Chicken Plus Chicken Tots from Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms, made with a blend of white-meat chicken, cauliflower, chickpeas, cabbage and potatoes, recently won a People magazine food award as one of the best new supermarket products of the year.
Between meals, meat snacks made with poultry are lending species diversity to the snack aisle. “Protein snacks are another category projecting upward,” notes Super. “Many consumers are snacking more and are looking for high-protein, low-fat products that are healthy but also fill you up. Chicken meat snacks include salty snacks made from chicken skin, courtesy of brands like Flock, and jerky products with chicken as the main ingredient.”
In addition to variety and ease of use, value is increasingly driving the chicken category, both in terms of product development and in-store merchandising. Grocers can provide solutions for consumers on a budget by promoting value cuts like chicken thighs and drumsticks and pointing shoppers to prepared meals that have smaller portions of chicken or turkey as ingredients.
A new line of pre-seasoned fresh chicken from Farmer Focus reflects shoppers' interest in organic, convenient and flavorful options.
Finally, as in other areas of food retailing, the push for sustainability is evident in the poultry part of the meat case. One example is a line of chicken from Bedminster Township, N.J.-based Do Good Foods: The broilers are nourished with chicken feed that has been upcycled from surplus food that consumers bring to grocery stores. The chickens are raised with no antibiotics, hormones or steroids, and in a cage-free setting.
The emergence of such products aligns with an overall movement within and beyond the industry to produce poultry in a way that’s better for the planet and for the birds themselves. A high-profile science-based initiative called the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) has brought on several leading companies pledging to meet higher standards for broiler chicken welfare. Participating grocers include The Kroger Co., Giant Eagle, Natural Grocers and Sprouts Farmers Market, among others. CPGs such as General Mills, Kraft Heinz and Unilever are also taking part, as are poultry suppliers Perdue, Wayne Farms and Mary’s Chicken.
There’s also now a U.S. Working Group for Broiler Welfare, facilitated by Compassion in World Farming and Blue House Sustainability Consulting. In August, those entities revealed that Giant Eagle, Sprouts, Natural Grocers, Target and Whole Foods Market are taking part in the effort to support food businesses in transitioning supply chains through the welfare standards outlined in the BCC.
“At Whole Foods Market, we’ve long maintained rigorous quality standards across our meat department and take the issue of broiler chicken welfare seriously,” said Karen Christensen, SVP of merchandising for perishables at Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, when news of the working group broke. “We sincerely appreciate the important work of Compassion in World Farming, and we’re excited to join the working group to share what we’ve learned about raising the bar for broiler welfare and to join with others in pushing for systemic change.”