Will chicken become as expensive as beef?

Where poultry production costs are rising faster than for other the production of competitor proteins, chicken meat may be starting to lose its cost advantage.

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(Nehopelon | Bigstock)
(Nehopelon | Bigstock)

Chicken’s reputation as a cheap source of protein may be well established but it might be about to come to an end, warns the chief executive of the U'K.'s sixth-largest supermarket chain, The Co-op.

Quoted in the newspaper the Sunday Times, Steve Murrells predicted that “chicken could become as expensive as beef,” adding that its price was rising faster than that of other proteins in the country.

That producing chicken has become more expensive should not come as a surprise to anyone. The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have led to rising costs of fertilizer, animal feed and fuel, but cost pressures in the industry were already building, particularly in those areas reliant on imported feed.

Last October, Ranjit Singh Boparan, president of the U.K.’s largest broiler producer, 2 Sisters Food Group, stated that feed costs, for example, had risen by 15%, wages were 20% higher, while energy costs had soared. The days when you could feed a family of four with a GBP3.00 (US$4.05) were coming to an end, he said.

And while consumers can bear a certain level of cost increases, there comes a point where they start to cut back, and this would appear to already be happening in the U.K.

Widely reported data from NielsenIQ has revealed that U.K. consumers are already cutting back on purchases of meat, fish and poultry.

The volume of meat, fish and poultry sold by supermarkets during the four weeks to April 23rd was down by 13% compared to a year earlier, while sales by value were 7.8% lower. The four-week period included the Easter holiday, when spending normal increases.

Not all grocery categories were lower, the market research company notes, and the four week period last year coincided with the end of the final lockdown in the U.K. giving sales a boost. Nevertheless, the decline in animal protein purchases suggests that consumers are cutting back.

But will chicken really reach the same price as beef?

A luxury meat?

Murrells points out that chicken production in the U.K. faces the challenge of being reliant on imported feed, whereas most cattle in the country are pasture fed.

It may seem unthinkable that chicken could be as expensive as beef, but it has only been since the late 1950s - coincidentally, the last time that U.K. consumers suffered such an income squeeze - that poultry has been the cheaper option in the U.K.

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