Food media writers and broadcasters zeroed in on product labeling and what poultry flocks are fed in a question-and-answer session with chicken company executives at the 2011 Food Media Seminar. While the media members engaged the executives in a discussion of industry economics, sustainability and food safety, their questioning returned again and again to issues involving poultry packaging and labels, including the presence, or, more accurately the absence, of hormones and steroids in U.S.-produced chicken.
Executives from Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Peco Foods used the question-and-answer session to talk about the economic value, sustainability and food safety of chicken. They specifically asked for the food media’s help in getting more chicken leg and thigh into the diets of U.S. consumers.
Questions from the food media
Food media members at the seminar included food writers from local newspapers, food and home-living magazines, national and local TV and radio broadcasters, authors of food recipe books, Internet-based food planners and food media publishing consultants.
Their questioning of the chicken industry executives covered a range of issues, including the following:
- Why doesn’t the industry promote the fact that hormones and steroids are not added in chicken production?
- Is the industry researching alternative animal feed ingredients that would produce new, higher-value chicken products?
- What is being done to promote the consumption of chicken legs and thighs?
- What is the industry doing to lower the sodium content of chicken products?
- Why doesn’t the industry produce smaller chickens?
Scoring on value with consumers
Donnie Smith, CEO, Tyson Foods, said that chicken is winning the competition with beef and pork, in part, because chicken is the most efficient converter of grains to meat protein.
“While it will be a tough year economically for the industry, chicken will continue to take share of per capita consumption from beef and pork,” he said.
Smith cited the following facts to support his conclusion: “It takes 11 bushels of corn to produce a hundred pounds of boneless beef. To produce 100 pounds of boneless pork takes eight bushels of corn. It takes slightly less than four bushels of corn to produce 100 pounds of boneless chicken.”
Given current corn prices of more than $7 a bushel, the feed conversion advantage for chicken is an important one, Smith said, and will lead to per capita consumption declines in beef and pork in 2011 of 1.5 pounds and 0.5 pound, respectively, according to USDA projections. Per capita consumption of chicken, meantime, is expected to rise by 0.33 pound.
“USDA’s long-term projections for 2020 show per capita consumption of beef and pork as flat and chicken consumption up about 10 pounds,” he said.
Cost per pound favors production of larger birds
Why doesn’t the chicken industry produce smaller birds? This question was raised by several seminar participants whose recipes call for smaller whole birds and chicken parts, such as breasts, legs and thighs.
High feed costs are not expected to alter the trend in production of heavier chickens, though portioning and further processing add consumer convenience to products made from the meat from these birds.
“It costs more per pound to produce a small bird versus a large bird, and consumers are going to tend to buy the product that is cheapest per pound, Smith said. “Those are the facts of doing business and providing food for people. Our industry has to find all the efficiency available to produce food that is affordable.”
Jim Perdue, chairman and CEO, Perdue Farms, said portioning is an answer that adds consumer convenience to the larger birds. Citing the example of Perdue Perfect Portions, he said, “One of the reasons that product is popular is that the portions are a size that cook quickly and evenly.”
Lampkin Butts, COO, Sanderson Farms, said that portioning is not only being performed by chicken companies in their plants but also in restaurants and home kitchens. “This trend will continue and grow,” he said.
Consumer misconceptions about hormones, cages
Why doesn’t the industry promote the fact that there are no hormones or steroids added in the production of chicken? A food writer with Relish magazine had this to say: “It seems the fact that hormones and steroids are not added to chicken is not getting across to people. They may choose a product that says 'hormone free' or 'steroid free' on the label over one that does not because they think it is different or special in not having hormones or steroids.
“I know there is the potential issue of over-labeling, but there is persistent confusion about issues like hormones, steroids and cages for broilers. Why doesn’t the industry just beat us consumers over the head with the message that these things aren’t used in chicken production?”
The fact is some chicken companies have begun adding small-print disclaimers to their labels – no hormones or steroids. The disclaimers must also include a statement that federal law does not allow hormones or steroids in poultry products. But the effectiveness of these disclaimers is limited. How many consumers read – and believe – the fine print?
The thinking at many companies has been that it may be considered disingenuous to advertise that their chicken contains none of a substance that isn’t in any chicken produced by any U.S. producer and that is, in fact, banned by law. Furthermore, some retail customers may oppose raising these issues with consumers due to their controversial nature.
Misconceptions being addressed
Thinking about consumer misconceptions is changing in the poultry industry. Since the food media seminar occurred, Perdue Farms has launched national TV spots that address the issues of steroids, hormones and cages. Perdue explained the rationale behind the campaign in this statement at the food media seminar: “The industry has to deal with consumer perceptions, not just reality.”
Perdue said his company’s tracking studies show consumer misconceptions about hormones and steroids have been growing for decades. More recently, misconceptions also have arisen over cages to grow chickens. “All of us raise chickens in large houses, and birds can roam freely throughout the houses. But consumer perceptions to the contrary must be dealt with. Otherwise, those misconceptions are going to grow,” he said.
Development of demand for legs and thighs
Several of the food media expressed positive views of leg and thigh meat. One syndicated writer, whose job involves the development of recipes, said: “I love boneless, skinless chicken thighs and legs. Not only are they convenient and plateable, they provide the smaller amounts of protein to fit dietary guidelines.” She suggested that the industry promote legs and thighs as the size product that fits consumer needs.
There were other suggestions for developing legs and thighs demand. Kathleen Zelman, director of nutrition for WebMD, said the popularity of breast meat is partially the result of recommendations by nutritionists and dietitians, who have educated consumers about the positive nutritional profile of breast meat. She suggested that an industry campaign to educate consumers about the nutritional goodness of leg and thigh meat might increase consumption of those cuts.
Nutritional profile better than beef
Linda Gassenheimer of National Public Radio, who also writes cookbooks, said she included more recipes for chicken legs and thighs than for beef in a book for the American Diabetes Association. “I was able to include recipes for the back end of the chicken because they fit the nutritional profile and make a better recipe.”
Mark Hickman, CEO of Peco Foods, encouraged the food media to educate consumers about the nutritional goodness and taste of leg and thigh meat. “Many chefs with whom I speak talk about the flavor and versatility of chicken legs and thighs. The food media can help broaden the popularity of chicken legs and thighs by teaching readers how to cook and prepare them.”
Lack of agreement on labeling issue
There was less agreement among the seminar participants on the issue of sodium and product labeling. Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms are members of the Truthful Labeling Coalition that advocates the words “all natural” not be permitted on poultry with added sodium. Sanderson Farms, for example, does not market chicken under the Sanderson label with additives such as salt and marinades. Tyson Foods, on the other hand, offers products with and without added sodium or marinades. Peco Foods, whose business is in private labeling, formulates its products to fit the requirements – sometimes including marinades – of its customers.
The executives from Tyson Foods and Peco Foods emphasized value addition and customer choice where the issue of added sodium is concerned. Their companies offer both types of products. For Sanderson Farms, on the other hand, it is an issue of consumers knowing whether the product contains added sodium.
While some of the food media participants wanted to know what the industry is doing to lower sodium levels in chicken, at least one believed the “natural” concept should not be part of the issue. A food writer for the El Paso Times said: “It's my own personal feeling that putting the word 'natural' on packages really means nothing. Cyanide and arsenic are natural. Sodium is natural. The term is meaningless for labeling.”
There is one thing the participants agreed upon, and which was voiced by Lampkin Butts: “Chicken consumption continues to increase because of its nutritional and economic value.”
Executives participating in the panel included Donnie Smith, CEO, Tyson Foods; Jim Perdue, chairman and CEO, Perdue Farms; Mark Hickman, CEO, Peco Foods; and Lampkin Butts, COO, Sanderson Farms. The panel was moderated by Bernard Leonard of Tyson Foods. Leonard is the current chairman of the National Chicken Council.