The true state of the chicken industry

So far, 2013 has been a distressing year in chicken news. First, two men allegedly stole 26,000 pounds of chicken wings earlier this month from a storage facility in Georgia. (The filched appetizers are still at large, CBS News reported on Monday morning.) Last week, a report by the National Chicken Council—which announced a 1 percent decrease in chicken production over the course of 2012—spawned online hysteria as football fans across the country fretted that their viewing parties would be bereft of Buffalo wings on Super Bowl Sunday. Had the poultry doomsayers read to the end of the report, they would have seen this important detail: “Consumers shouldn’t worry about any shortage of wings on Super Bowl Sunday or any time soon.”

Bloomberg Businessweek tracked down Bill Roenigk, the National Chicken Council’s chief economist, to discuss the true state of the chicken industry.

So you’re a chicken economist?

The National Chicken Council is primarily a lobbying group. While I am not a lobbyist, when you analyze some of the regulations or legislation, you start to ask: What is the economic impact? Will it cost us a little money or a lot of money? That’s where I spend my time. I’ve been at the council since 1974. Before this I worked at the Department of Agriculture. Originally, I didn’t want to get into the poultry industry. I grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, so I was more comfortable with bovine animals and had some tunnel vision.

Please talk a bit about wings consumption in the U.S.

When you look at all chicken consumption, the Mid-Atlantic states are about 5 to 6 percent above average. The West Coast is just 1 to 2 percent above average. Cowboy country—Wyoming, Montana, cattle country—is the softest consumption area. Super Bowl weekend is nearly 5 percent of annual consumption.

So hypothetically, the worst outcome for the chicken industry would be having two teams from cowboy country in the Super Bowl.

If Boise had a pro football team—or Cheyenne—we wouldn’t be as excited.

What else are you threatened by? Vegans?

It’s been pretty consistent in our surveys over the last 10 years that only 5 to 6 percent of consumers say they don’t eat chicken at all. Our biggest threat: We have to have a big corn crop and a big soybean crop this year [as these are key ingredients in feed]. If you look at the drought index, it gives us all a lot of concern. We don’t have an inventory of corn to call upon because of the drought last year. The cost of the feed ingredients would be very high.

So we’re safe for the Super Bowl, but supply could still be tight next year if there are problems with feed?

That’s our biggest concern.

If there were a chicken shortage in America, could we import them?

We import fresh poultry from Canada and Chile. But the production costs in Canada are high, and with Chile the transport costs would negate any cost advantage they would have. If you’re eating wings, you can be about 100 percent sure it’s a U.S. wing, except possibly in Hawaii. Supermarkets have to say where they came from.

We can raise chickens to have more breast meat though, so maybe Americans would settle for imposter “boneless wings”?

We love boneless wings. They are breast strips flavored to taste like traditional bone-in, skin-on wings. Some restaurants tell us 15 to 20 percent of their “wings” sales are boneless. I still prefer traditional wings. Call me old-fashioned.

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