Are poultry producers’ sustainability efforts in vain?

Consumer preference for white over dark chicken meat comes at a cost for the planet.

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Courtesy Tyson
Courtesy Tyson

Do consumers really care about sustainability, or is the issue simply something to pay lip service to and talk to about with friends?

A growing number of developed-world consumers claim to be concerned about the environmental impact of food production, yet if you look at what the developed world does with its food, an awful lot is wasted, and this includes chicken.

To be sustainable, the fewest possible resources should be used in the most efficient manner. Producers seem to be more conscious of this, yet consumer behavior is lagging behind.

Consider a study based on FAO data by Champions 12.3 -- a group dedicated to combating climate change. It reveals that, in North America and Oceania, food waste at consumption level stands at 61 percent, and in Europe it stands at 52 percent. This makes a mockery of attempts by producers to reduce the environmental impact of production.

After fish, chicken is often held up to be the most efficient form of meat production with the lowest environmental impact, but it matters little how efficient or sustainable the poultry industry may strive to be; there is little value if that conscientiousness does not extend to consumer attitudes.

The nutritional value of bits

Take, for example, a television commercial that recently aired in the U.K. for McDonald’s chicken McNuggets, which sought to reassure consumers about product quality.

It starts with a woman claiming: “There’s all sorts of bits in McNuggets.” Just like in a game of Telephone, her claim is retold as: “There’s all sorts of beaks in McNuggets,” which then becomes “Bits, beaks and feet in McNuggets.” McDonald’s then reassures viewers that, in fact, all that is in a McNugget is 100 percent chicken breast.

I have no criticism of McDonald’s -- it is simply responding to consumer concerns -- but I believe that, at one point, McNuggets also contained dark meat.

Again in the U.K., newspaper The Independent has claimed that chicken is the most wasted of meats precisely because of the country’s preference for white meat.

The suspicion that many consumers have of anything other than white meat, means much of a chicken has lost commercial value. Yes, there may be export markets for dark meat, but exporting consumes resources.

Lost tradition

Traditionally, minced products, pies and sausages were not the vehicles for top quality cuts, but acted as vehicles for cuts that could not otherwise be served beautifully on a plate. These bits had plenty of nutritional value, and their consumption was much closer to the head-to-tail approach many argue is key for a sustainable meat industry.

They may not have offered “indulgence” or “luxury,” but they were good food and did not cost the earth.

Better use of food is not a new concept: Most of our grandparents would not have dreamt of treating food in the way that we do today, especially meat, and neither is waste confined to the developed world. But in developing countries, the reasons for waste tend to be very different.

In the hands of consumers

But it is a frightening thought that, taking the world as a whole, one-third of the food produced for human consumption each year is lost, and this lost and wasted food is responsible for 8 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, says Champions 12.3.

Where dark chicken meat is concerned, there are, in fact, many countries that have a preference for it over white, but this again means that some highly nutritious product is not being given the value that it should have.

If we are to feed all the hungry mouths that are forecast to appear over the coming decades, and do so in an environmentally sustainable manner, perhaps the answer for poultry, and other meat producers, will be not simply to produce more, but to engage with consumers to help them better value what is already being produced.

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