Dark meat is chicken’s next growth engine

As consumer preferences and demographics change, dark meat cuts will power growth in fresh chicken meat in the coming years.

(Iryna Pospikh | AdobeStock.com)
(Iryna Pospikh | AdobeStock.com)

As consumer preferences and demographics change, dark meat poultry cuts will power growth in fresh chicken meat in the coming years.

Flat sales

Boneless breast meat is the primary growth driver for U.S. chicken retail sales. Currently, boneless breast meat, along with strips, diced and tenderloins, comprise about 52% of total U.S. chicken retail sales. 

However, both retailers and chicken processors are struggling with flat to low growth. Chicken sales were flat, with volume up 0.2% in the past year and exactly flat in the last three years. 

It’s not just chicken that’s struggling. Fresh meat dollar volume has declined slightly, by -0.2%, over the last year. It declined -0.1% over the last three years, too.

Sustained growth in dark meat sales

Winners know how to anticipate which areas will outpace the overall market in terms of grow.  Presence in those fast-growing segments is the key to outperformance and is even more important in a flat market where every pound sold matters. 

So where should chicken processors and retailers look for growth in the next three years? Dark meat. It is collectively a large enough segment to impact both retailer and processor bottom lines. 

Let’s break down where this opportunity lies: Over the last 52 weeks, U.S. retail dark meat dollar sales have increased by 3.5%.  While that number may not seem impressive, it’s more than triple the total chicken growth rate.

Selected Chicken Cut Sales

Dark meat cuts like thighs and drumsticks saw sales growth in 2018.

Boneless thighs

We believe boneless thighs are setting up for a multi-year growth run. According to IRI data, boneless thighs accounted for $844 million in total sales over the past 52 weeks. The cut’s sales have grown by double digits every year since 2016, too.

In almost all the markets IRI tracks for chicken sales, boneless thighs have positive sales growth. In every market, boneless thighs are growing faster than boneless breast. Conversely, boneless breast sales have declined 3.5% over the past year.

It’s likely that the boneless thigh growth is coming at the expense of boneless breast. While it’s way too early to say that boneless breast sales have topped, it’s clear that boneless thighs are the new growth engine for chicken.   

However, the growth in dark meat is not being driven by bone-in cuts except for drumsticks. In fact, both white and dark bone-in cuts are suffering vast declines. Only wings and drumsticks are creating any positive momentum. This decline in bone-in parts is part of a long-term shift as consumers seek more convenient, easy-to-cook solutions for meals. 

Which consumer segments are driving this change? 

Overall, Asian and African-American consumers are the most frequent buyers of thigh meat. White households have the largest growth from 2017 through 2019. 

Purchases of boneless thighs and dark meat are growing across all age groups but younger households have grown their purchasing faster more recently. Households in the Millennial generation, especially those age 25-34, are seeing the largest buying growth over last three years.

This purchasing skew toward younger generations will create a major tailwind for boneless thighs and dark meat overall.  Moreover, the U.S. is becoming more multi-cultural with Asians and Hispanics becoming a larger percentage of the population. With younger generations powering the growth, dark meat will likely have staying power.

Future growth opportunities

For processors, boneless thighs and other innovative solutions for dark meat usually require investment. The processors that can take advantage by creating the innovative packaging and cuts and extend their brands will likely beat out competitors.

Focus less on dicing and slicing white meat and build out the capital needed for boneless and other value-added dark meat products. In flat markets, growth isn’t easy, but focused efforts can create some major momentum.

For retailers, growth in the boneless thigh segment will come from adding products that appeal to all households. Boneless thighs can be hard to find in a dense case, but the retailers that help consumers find the product will likely outperform others. 

This can mean adding products as well as facings in the case. Signage to call out dark meat cuts and organize it more effectively will likely help drive sales, too. In addition, winning retailers will tailor assortments to local markets.

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