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Prices go thigh-high as consumers seek dark meat

By Steve Karnowski

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:40 a.m. HST, May 01, 2012


MINNEAPOLIS >> Pat LaFrieda Jr. can't get enough chicken thighs. If his family business featured on the new Food Network series "Meat Men" orders 100 cases of boneless, skinless thighs, his supplier might deliver only 60.

That's because consumers have discovered something chefs have long known about dark meat: "It was always the least expensive protein that you could buy, but it had the most amount of flavor," LaFrieda said.

Thighs and drumsticks are climbing the pecking order as Americans join consumers abroad in seeking flavor that isn't found in ubiquitous, boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The poultry industry used to have trouble finding a market for dark meat, but changing domestic tastes and growing exports to countries that prefer leg quarters are pushing up prices and helping pull the poultry industry out of a deep slump.

Poultry industry experts agree TV food shows are helping to spur demand as chefs talk up dark meat and give home cooks new ideas. Dark meat is more forgiving than white and doesn't dry out as easily, La Frieda said, so thighs are great on the grill, while ground dark meat works well shaped into burgers, stuffed into ravioli or stirred into a Bolognese sauce and served over pasta, he said.

"If you're looking for what the next trend is ... always ask the butcher what he takes home," said LaFrieda, whose company, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors of North Bergen, N.J., supplies restaurants in the New York City area and along the East Coast.

Matt Monk, 29, of Birmingham, Ala., a customer service representative for Medicare, said he grew up eating chicken breasts because that's all his mother would cook. He wasn't introduced to dark meat until he moved in with his father in his teens.

"I like it because of the flavor," Monk said. "It does not dry out like white meat. White meat, to me, it's flavorless. Any flavor that comes from the meat, it has to come from me seasoning it."

The convenience and greater availability of boneless, skinless thighs is another major factor in the dark meat craze. New, automated equipment makes it more economical to debone leg quarters, where the work once had to be done by hand.

Dark meat historically has been cheaper than white, but according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, wholesale boneless, skinless thighs now cost as much as breasts, and sometimes more. Both averaged $1.33 a pound in March, but thigh prices were up 15 percent from a year earlier, while breasts were up only 1 percent. Bone-in leg quarters averaged 53 cents per pound in March, up 26 percent from a year ago.

Melissa Dexter, 27, a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said she noticed recently when buying both boneless breasts and thighs at Wal-Mart that the package of dark meat actually cost about 50 cents more. She said thighs are generally cheaper, though, and help stretch her budget.

"Growing up, whenever we had chicken, whether it was KFC or homemade, the breast meat was always dry," Dexter said. "I always enjoyed the flavor, not just the juiciness, but the flavor coming out of the dark meat."

For decades, producers made their money on the front half of the bird but lost money on the back half, said Bill Roenigk, senior vice president and economist with the National Chicken Council. That began changing in the 1990s as the industry found new markets in Russia, Asia and Latin America. While producers still lose money on dark meat, he said, the difference isn't as great as it once was.

Domestically, chicken companies are becoming more innovative with new products such as chicken sausages, which are mostly dark meat, Roenigk said. At the same time, they're seeing more sales to Hispanic and Asian immigrants, who have brought their food preferences with them.

At Whole Foods Market Inc., the dark meat trend has mainly shown up in sales of store-made chicken sausage, said Theo Weening, global meat buyer for the Austin, Texas-based chain. The varieties vary, but Italian and breakfast sausages are top sellers. Whole Foods had to scramble last year when sausage makers boosted production for the holidays and dark meat became hard to get, but things are back on track now, he said.

The No. 1 U.S. chicken producer, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, Ark., declined to provide sales figures before its earnings report next month, but a spokesman said it has seen strong growth with dark meat and is actively promoting it to "value-conscious customers."

"Last year, we launched a line of chicken lunch meats, which are packaged deli-style for retailers," Gary Mickelson said. "Other areas perfect for dark meat chicken include pizza toppings, ground chicken and smoked sausage. These offerings allow value-conscious customers to buy high quality, great tasting all-meat products, but at a lower price point."

While companies wouldn't release figures, other supermarkets and suppliers also said they're seeing strong growth in dark meat sales.

Tim Wensman, an executive vice president for St. Cloud-based GNP Company, which supplies Gold'n Plump brand chicken to Midwestern supermarkets, said a line of chicken sausages it's launching this month has already attracted strong interest.

Eden Prairie-based Supervalu Inc., the nation's third-largest supermarket operator, has seen "double-digit" growth in dark meat sales at its Midwest and East Coast chains, spokesman Mike Siemienas said. He wasn't sure why, but speculated that the mild winter led to an early start for the grilling season.

Nobody is ready to write off the boneless, skinless chicken breast, however.

"I think we're still a white-meat nation when it comes to chicken," said Tom Stone, marketing director for Bell & Evans Chicken, of Fredericksburg, Pa., which supplies dealers including LaFrieda and Whole Foods, and restaurants such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. While thighs are definitely in, Stone said he hasn't seen demand grow as much for bone-in drumsticks.

"That's great kid food," he said. "Maybe it just hasn't hit yet."

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loquaciousone wrote:
When I heard about dark meat, I thought they were talking about something else.............
on May 1,2012 | 06:43AM
primowarrior wrote:
LOL! And that part about "prices going thigh high"....
on May 1,2012 | 10:23AM
coloradowarrior wrote:
chicken thighs has been hawaii's #1favorite for a long time. i remember buying the frozen 5 lbs. box from the market all the time when it was on sale growing up in hawaii. fried chicken or teriyaki shoyu style. lol.
on May 1,2012 | 06:49AM
clum56 wrote:
I can remember in the day when i used to go to Star Market in Moi'ilili wirh my mom and that's all she would buy. Also. the Gems on Ward Avenue would have them on sale, that's all that you would see in everyone's grocery cart with the limit and also other members of the family paying seperately loaded with chicken thighs. It was the most inexpensive meal and most favorable by all.
on May 2,2012 | 04:31AM
cojef wrote:
Give chicken wings! lLove it and that's the first pick for me at home, next the thighs, then the drumstick. Never cared for breast as far as chicken goes. On the side prefer breasts only on women.
on May 1,2012 | 07:55AM
BigOpu wrote:
...personally, I've always been a breast man ;-)
on May 1,2012 | 08:12AM
loquaciousone wrote:
My opu is big too.
on May 1,2012 | 08:33AM
environmental_lady wrote:
They are just promoting more products of cruelty. Ever put yourself in the place of those poor chickens? They are feeling creatures and they hurt all their lives! I sure don't want to enjoy life at the expense of those poor creatures when there are so many delectable non-meat and non-dairy recipes. Why not attend a free monthly demo at Down to Earth? Or buy their 30% discounted meat substitutes on meatless Mondays?
on May 1,2012 | 09:19AM
control wrote:
Ever put yourself in the place of those poor tomatoes? They are living beings too who are ruthlessly riped off of their bush. Oh the agony of it all. Hard to take the health food industry seriously when all they promote is fake food and supplements at rip off prices.
on May 1,2012 | 07:28PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
And here I thought this was another story about the Secret Service....
on May 1,2012 | 09:20AM
loquaciousone wrote:
Me too.... you know dark meat.
on May 1,2012 | 09:36AM
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