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People still eat much more of the white meat, experts say. But the juicy and only slightly fattier dark meat has gained favor because of lower prices amid a still-weak economy, a growing immigrant population and the proliferation of chicken sausages that use dark meat.
Greeley-based Pilgrim’s Pride, for one, has gradually increased sales of dark meat while reporting decreasing sales of breasts.
“Dark meat is making a run to begin to try to catch up (to white),” said Bill Roenigk, vice president and market economist for the National Chicken Council.
Producers traditionally have bred birds to have more breast than leg meat, so demand for legs has driven up their prices, Roenigk said.
Boneless, skinless thighs have caught up to the price of boneless, skinless breasts: Both cost around $1.35 a pound. Legs, while up, remain a more-affordable 50 cents per pound.
The recession has led consumers who would normally eat white meat to trade down, Stephen Koontz, associate professor and extension economist at Colorado State University, said in an e-mail.
Similar to the phenomenon of beef chucks and rounds seeing strong demand over steak cuts, some consumers have traded chicken breasts for legs.
“This can only be good news for chicken producers, who have had a pretty bad year,” Koontz said.
Almost all of the breast meat produced in the United States is sold domestically, Roenigk said, but only about 60 percent of dark meat produced in the United States is sold here. Asian and Hispanic immigrants form a large market for dark meat, he said. Producers export the remaining 40 percent.
U.S. chicken producers in December exported the most chicken to Mexico and Russia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mexico imported nearly 97 million pounds while Russia received more than 59 million pounds.
Amid a recent trade agreement disruption between the United States and Russia, Roenigk said chicken producers have found other export markets.
Pilgrim’s Pride has used the worldwide reach of its majority shareholder, Brazilian meat packer JBS S.A., to expand dark meat and whole-bird exports to the Middle East and Asia, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
It also has devoted one of its U.S. processing plants to satisfying export orders, and though its first-quarter sales remained flat at $1.9 billion, sales to Mexico surged 12 percent.
Pilgrim’s did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but it hinted at the value of dark meat to its bottom line in a first-quarter earnings statement last month.
The company, as well as the industry, must continue a shift toward valuing the “whole bird” and not relying on high breast-meat prices to bolster margins, Pilgrim’s said.
The company suffered during fiscal year 2011, when it posted losses of $497 million. It blamed higher costs and volatility in grain prices.
“This quarter confirms our belief: The industry can be profitable even at varying grain price points given the right focus on discipline,” CEO Bill Lovette said.
The agriculture department expects continued growth in exports this year. And if dark meat exports remain strong, leg prices could increase even more, the agriculture department said.
Regardless, everyone could pay more for chicken this year whether it’s white or dark: The agriculture department forecasts higher overall prices for chicken and lower production.