If there is one thing that North Americans love to eat — it is chicken wings.
During the Super Bowl game alone, one billion wings are consumed along with an ocean of beer. Canadians are right in there chowing down on the once tossed tidbit, and continue to eat a few birds each year themselves.
In the U.S., wings sales top US$839 million each year with cooked wings from the deli bringing in another $633 million. The hotter the wing, the hotter the demand — and sales of the scorchers prove it to be so.
But the real flight in wings is in the natural and organic categories with sales of natural wings up more than 90 per cent and organic chicken wings up 21 per cent to 46 per cent (depending on the region in the U.S.).
- More with Brenda Schoepp on the Alberta Farmer: Some emerging trends that we need to pay attention to
It is pretty obvious that the wing platter is no longer just for the beer-guzzling sport fanatic as now 30 per cent of all classes of restaurants offer a winged plate.
Canadians and Americans alike love chicken and 90 per cent of them eat it regularly. In Canada per capita consumption is strong at 31.86 kilograms annually, with more than 60 per cent of the birds being produced in Ontario and Quebec.
What has changed with chicken is the way it is raised and how quickly it grows.
Certainly there are condemned wings but there is also a problem with one out of every 10 birds having a ‘woody’ breast (with hard or woody fibres in the meat). The problem has scientists and nutritionists scratching their heads, but it looks like a little slower growing period at the front end along with diet changes could circumvent a lot of the issue.
Consider that in 1925 it took almost 45 days for a broiler to gain a pound of weight. Today it takes 7.7 days for the same performance. And, the birds are bigger. In 1925, the average finished broiler was a featherweight at 2.5 pounds while the same bird today weighs in at 6.24 pounds.
Woody breast is particularly evident in these heavier birds. Much of this product ends up ground.
Still, with nearly 90 per cent of Canadians and Americans eating chicken, it is easy to see why all portions of the bird, and particularly wing sales, are taking flight. And sales have managed to hold their own despite year-on-year increases in chicken prices.
But that steady price has created its own set of problems.
Lawsuits filed in Chicago claim that a group of large chicken processors, which collectively controls 90 per cent of the chicken production in the U.S., has colluded to keep prices high. The claim is that these companies co-ordinated contracts and plant closures, and even broke eggs and killed hens to control the supply. The lawsuit alleges that’s driven up prices by 50 per cent since 2008.
These companies are praying they stay out of the pen but it is hard to reconcile the massive increase in productivity with the rising cost of chicken. The squawking has attracted a flock of lawyers that is circling the wagons. And yet, despite all the flapping, and the suspicion and worry about co-ordinated supply – folks are still buying a lot of chicken — and they are especially fond of wings at home, in the restaurant and at the deli counter.
Let us hope that the investigations do not uncover the unnecessary destruction of eggs and hens that is outside of normal business practice. If found, the industry itself may find new regulations that make the cost of business more expensive and with the transparency involved, will experience some difficulty passing that along to the consumer. Woody breast may involve the production of a little smaller bird and that could also influence supply. There is a host of possibilities here.
An old argument of what comes first — the chicken or the egg — could tie up this case in the courts for years.
But there is one thing for certain: An industry that can sell chicken balls, chicken fingers and flavoured wings (that are mostly bone) while folks pay a premium for those meals has some creative minds in the home office. When it all comes to roost, I imagine folks will still eat chicken — particularly Canadian chicken, whether in conventional, natural and organic form — because they want to.