Continuing trends and new opportunities will keep chicken at the top of consumers’ protein consumption list as food prices climb. Anticipation of new flavor profiles and higher consumption of dark meat join established consumer expectations of value, nutrition, versatility and ease of preparation.
“Consumers want what they’ve always wanted – a great tasting product that is healthy, nutritious and convenient,” says Clinton Rivers, chief executive office, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation. Affordable protein joins that list in a time when escalating food, fuel and housing costs are forcing consumers to make choices in order to balance their budgets.
Consumers are being forced to trade-down in their food choices to help balance their budgets, both when eating out and preparing meals at home.
Chicken menu options grow and change
Quoting from a recent survey, Bernard Leonard, group vice president, Tyson Foods, Inc., said that 32 percent of consumers expect to eat out less frequently; 26 percent will eat at restaurants offering special promotions; 25 percent will be more apt to order from the value menu; and 24 percent will go to less expensive restaurants overall.
Restaurants are responding to their customers’ tightening budgets while fighting their own higher cost battles by developing menu items that take advantage of chicken as a lower-cost protein over red meats.
New, bargain-priced menu items featuring chicken are being developed with a trend towards using the lower-cost formed product rather than the more expensive pulled muscle product. More breakfast and snack items incorporating chicken are showing up on menus to help restaurants reduce their costs while still offering tasty, nutritional choices, by removing more red meat from some day parts.
“We are seeing a lot of activity, particularly in the quick-serve restaurant (QSR) arena,” says Leonard. For example, one QSR significantly increased sales when they added a spicy chicken sandwich; another offers a soup and salad combination where chicken is the protein in the soup.
In the past, consumers have viewed chicken as a premium product at fast-food venues with the pulled muscle menu items costing more than the ground beef offerings. This perception will change as corn costs and the difference in feed conversion rates among chickens and red meat animals close the price gap that has existed among meat products.
Flavors become more specific
Regardless of cost and nutritional value, if a product doesn’t taste good, consumers won’t buy it. Creating new flavors is still at the top the list for providers.
Rivers says, “We see more and more flavor profiles out there and it is a matter of hitting on the right one that makes it popular.”
Flavors are becoming more specific. Rather than featuring a general Asian flavor, a product will offer a Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese taste experience. Bolder flavors are being developed to appeal to younger consumers.
As these new flavors are developed, focus is kept on creating offerings with clean labels, fewer added ingredients. Whether it’s the selection of seasonings, eliminating sodium, or reducing preservatives, producers are working to provide flavored and natural chicken products to satisfy higher consumer nutrition requirements.
“Today, especially,” adds Mike Roberts, president of Food Products Business of Perdue Farms, Inc., “with the high grain prices, we have to understand the consumer better than ever because we don’t have a lot of dollars to throw at new products.”
Dark meat consumption on the rise
Dark meat, preferred by many countries receiving U.S. chicken exports, is gaining popularity in the USA for two reasons:
- The influx of the Asian and Latino populations has brought with it the ethnic preferences for dark poultry meat. As long as those populations continue to grow, consumption of dark meat will grow. And, second generations of immigrants tend to perpetuate the ethnic preference of their families.
- The lower cost of dark meat chicken, coupled with nutrition information focusing on the positive nutritional value - good fat, high levels of iron and zinc – is making dark meat a more popular choice among consumers who previously bought only white meat products.
Then there is taste. Many food technicians feel that the taste of dark chicken or turkey meat blends very well with the bold flavors that are becoming more popular.
Convenient sizing and portioning
Rivers says, “One of the statistics we talk about is that 7 percent of meal preparers don’t know what they are going to have for dinner at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. So you’ve got the problem of convenience.”
Fully-cooked, ready-to-eat, and ready-to-cook, seasoned products continue as a focus of new product development to satisfy the needs of consumers, who are, as Roberts put it, “culinarily challenged” or “roastaphobic” due to a lack of cooking skills and/or a time deficit.
For example, one convenience product is a fully-prepared, seasoned chicken packaged in a bag. It is ready to go into a pan, directly into the oven, and it cooks in half the time required if roasted without the bag.
Packaging of portions with a flexibility to use some and save some, eliminating waste, is addressing consumers’ need for economic use of their protein dollars. Consistent sizing for speed of preparation and uniformity in cooking are answering consumers’ needs for easy, fast preparation. This, in turn is driving producers to continue efforts to grow consistently sized broilers for production efficiency.
Chicken on top
Compared to other meat products, chicken’s feed conversion is so much more efficient than other protein that chicken is going to come out on top as consumers weigh how to spend their food dollars – whether in restaurants or their own kitchens.
Joe Sanderson, Jr., chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors, Sanderson Farms, wrapped-up the industry’s response to current trends, “Chicken is going to keep on plugging. And the chicken is going to be affordable.”