The Dark Side of the Bird
For years we've exported dark chicken meat to Russia—but that market is drying up.
Once Americans signaled a clear preference for breast meat in the '60s and '70s, producers needed an outlet for the dark meat that wasn't selling domestically. They knew that foreign markets, notably in Asia, prized the moist, succulent, and richly flavored leg meat. (In Asia, it's the breasts that end up in bargain buckets.) And so they worked to convert a domestic waste product into a profitable export. American chicken legs were purchased eagerly by Asian importers, and for a while a happy equilibrium was struck. Yet in the 1980s, when chicken consumption in the United States increased at a phenomenal rate, the poultry industry needed new outlets to absorb the growing numbers of discarded legs.
It was most fortuitous, then, that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, resulting in the relaxation of trade restrictions that had hindered commerce with the formerly Communist state. U.S. chicken exporters, eager to exploit this fresh market, were able to underprice virtually all other animal protein produced in Russia, and American dark meat flooded the country. The chicken legs became so popular that locals endearingly nicknamed them "Bush legs," after President Bush Sr. In 1975 the United States was exporting less than 140 million pounds of chicken globally. By 1995 this figure reached nearly 4 billion—with nearly 1.5 billion going to Russia.
Now the once symbiotic relationship is showing strain. Over the course of 2010, William Roenigk estimates that just 0.6 billion pounds of dark meat was exported to Russia. That's 1 billion pounds less than in 2009, and 1.7 billion less than the peak of 2001.
A seemingly obvious solution to this growing problem is to convince Americans that dark chicken meat is just as worthy as white. According to a 2007 National Chicken Council survey, 41 percent of consumers would eat dark meat more frequently if it "tasted better." But taste is entirely subjective, and familiarity is a powerful agent. Undoing many decades of conditioning would be a radical undertaking, and one that would probably prove futile. The extensive national television campaigns, in-store advertising, and revamped packaging necessary to re-educate consumers would be extremely expensive, even for the likes of Tyson and Perdue. Moreover, since boneless, skinless breasts cost nearly twice as much as similarly prepared thighs, and the production costs of dark meat are already absorbed into the price of the breasts, there is little incentive for producers to alter the status quo.
A much more realistic option is to find new export destinations. In fact the chicken industry has already started courting Mexico and China as well as Eastern European, Latin American, and smaller Asian nations with a similar palette to the Russians. Competition for foreign markets is, however, extremely stiff, with Brazil—currently the world's largest exporter of chicken—posing the biggest threat. And in this rapidly changing marketplace it's unlikely that producers can rely on exports alone to make use of all our unwanted dark meat.
Another solution would be for fast-food companies to save the day by carrying a dark meat product, which, despite everything you've just read, might actually happen in the not-too-distant future. But only because science has managed to transform dark meat into white. Some 10 years ago, when the chicken industry was in a similar state of crisis due to the collapse of the Russian Ruble, the USDA provided funding to find new uses for the much-maligned cut. Dr. Mirko Betti, a professor of nutritional science, embraced the challenge while completing his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia and developed a product similar to surimi, the synthetic crabmeat found in Asian eateries. The production process is simple; excess water is added to ground dark meat and the slurry is centrifuged at high speed to remove the fat and myoglobin. At the end there are three distinct layers: fat, water, and the extracted meat. The first two are discarded, and the third, which resembles a sort of meaty milkshake, is where the money is. It promises endless commercial applications (in nuggets, burgers, and other processed products) for businesses that can both fulfill demands for "white meat" and exploit the favorable supply-side price of dark meat. Betti, who's currently at the University of Alberta, is confident that in just a couple of years his meaty milkshake will be featured on a menu near you.
Roenigk doesn't share Betti's enthusiasm for fake breasts, and suggests that to compensate for the glut, larger amounts of dark meat will simply be diverted to outlets that already make use of this "waste" product. "While Americans might not feed themselves dark meat, they don't seem to have any problems feeding it to their pets," he says. And we don't have a problem feeding it to the poor, either. Last summer, the USDA announced that it would purchase up to $14 million dollars of dark chicken meat "products" for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks.
Despite the loss of the Russian market, the ever-resourceful chicken industry is still some way off from dumping dark chicken meat in landfills, and no doubt it will continue to mine this discarded commodity for profit—no matter how meager. Or maybe the industry will find a more permanent solution to the American taste imbalance. Since the 1970s, poultry producers have been altering the ratio of breast meat to dark meat through strategic selective breeding—with great success. Thirty years ago the yield of breast meat from an average chicken was 36 percent of the bird's total retail weight; today it's more than 40 percent. The cellophane-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breast halves ubiquitous in grocery stores used to weigh 4 ounces in 1980; today they weigh nearly 5.5 ounces. Birds with all breast and no legs—pure science fiction or a future reality?
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Correction, Jan. 26, 2011: This piece originally provided two, contradictory estimates of average chicken consumption in the United States in 1970 versus 1985. (Return to the corrected sentence.)