Chicken Outsells Beef, But How That Impacts the Farm Varies

3/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

For the first time in 100 years, the supply of chicken available to U.S. consumers has outstripped beef. The most recent USDA data states that “58 pounds of chicken per person on a boneless, edible basis were available for Americans to eat in 2010, compared to 56.7 pounds of beef.

“Beef availability has been declining since peaking at 88.8 pounds per capita on a boneless, edible basis in 1976. Chicken began its upward climb in the 1940s, overtaking pork in 1996 as the second most consumed meat. Since 1970, U.S. chicken availability per person has more than doubled. Since the late 1950s, chicken has made steady progress in its popularity.”

Many different factors have played into the growth of chicken, but how it affects various aspects of production varies widely.

Aidan Connolly, vice president of Alltech Pennsylvania, said that chicken’s popularity worldwide has come home to roost in America’s melting pot — and cooking pot.

“Chicken has advantages if you look at the worldwide situation,” Connolly said. “It’s accepted by pretty much all religious and is perceived by many as a healthy meat. The color, white, has a perception of being healthier and can be added in a variety of processed foods, since it doesn’t have a strong flavor. It’s easy to manipulate.”

The convenience of packaged chicken has also increased in the past century. Instead of the option of purchasing only whole birds as in the early 1900s, consumers can buy chicken deboned or buy their preferred part marinated or precooked. Chicken can also be shaped into nuggets and patties.

In comparison to cattle, chicken’s smaller size and cheaper inputs make it less expensive and easier to grow, and less costly for a recession-strapped consumer.

Since Alltech serves the nutrition needs of cattle and poultry, the shift towards beef won’t affect its business. However, smaller producers that grow both beef and chicken may need to expand their flocks and diminish their herds.

Autumn’s Harvest Farm in Romulus, N.Y., raises black Angus beef cattle, heritage turkeys, heritage egg-laying chickens, broiler chickens and heritage pigs. Owner Timothy J. Haws thinks that price has become a big factor with his customers.

“The price of beef is at an all-time high,” Haws said. “We’ve seen our sales go up with chickens. Chicken sales are at an all-time high. We can barely keep up.”

He thinks that consumer health has also become a big influence on what ends up on the dinner table.

“Our country’s at a high level of obesity,” he said. “Chicken is the healthier choice option. People have to stay away from red meat and they are eating more lean meat and poultry.”

Of course, lean cuts of beef can reduce fat consumption when eating red meat, but these cuts tend to be more expensive than chicken and in general, chicken is less expensive per pound than beef.

Ben Wever Farm in Willsboro, N.Y., raises chicken eggs, grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and chickens and turkeys using sustainable methods. Shaun Gillilland co-owns the farm with his wife, Linda.

Shaun Gilliland said that he hasn’t observed any spike in chicken sales, “but in the conventional, mass-produced world, the idea that red meat is less healthful for you is likely behind it.”

Beth Smythe, a registered dietitian in Rochester, N.Y., and a media representative with the New York State Dietetic Association, believes that cost and consumer perception about healthfulness has influenced the shift from beef to chicken.

“Cost of beef is more than double that of chicken due in part to the cost of feed increasing,” Smythe said. “Also, recent headlines that beef was linked to heart disease and diabetes added fuel to the fire.”

She said that beef can be part of a healthy diet and that producers should promote these points. Cuts such as loin or round are among the 29 lean cuts of beef. Beef is low in calories, too, about 150 calories for a 3-ounce lean cut in comparison to a 3-ounce chicken thigh with the skin on, which is about 208 calories.

“Beef is an excellent source of nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and niacin,” Smythe said.

As with any other food, beef should be consumed in healthful portions as part of a balanced diet, what Smythe calls a “flexitarian.”

“It’s the key to good health,” she said. “All foods fit, however, most often the choices are from lean proteins, high-fiber carbohydrates and lots of fruits and vegetables, along with some heart-healthy fat.”

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