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Expert: U.S. poultry industry faces tough tests

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Every time someone eats a chicken breast, it compounds the biggest problem the U.S. poultry industry faces.

That's because the U.S. poultry market has more dark meat than it knows what to do with, said Eric Joiner, president, chief operating officer and co-founder of food-distribution giant AJC International.

Americans like white-meat

"The U.S. is such a white-meat market," Joiner said in the 18th annual J.W. Fanning Lecture Dec. 11 on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Ga.

Former chairman of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council and a current member of its board of directors, Joiner is one of the world's authorities on U.S. poultry exports.

In the lecture, Joiner noted three major challenges the poultry industry faces.

Compounding the dark-meat export problem, he said, is the fact that the U.S. market demands large chicken breasts. That means large leg quarters, which aren't appealing in the Asian markets that have a demand for dark-meat chicken.

"The industry has to move over 6 billion large leg quarters this year," Joiner said. "The export market can't take it."

Brazil is our biggest competitor

The second major challenge, he said, is competition from Brazil, which is second only to the United States in worldwide broiler production.

"(Brazil) is blowing the doors off production," Joiner said. "They have an incredible ability to grow and harvest soybeans (a chief component in chicken feed). And their plants are first-class. Brazil's exports grew by 38 percent in 2001."

While he expects Brazil's export growth rate to eventually level out, Brazil poses a substantial threat to U.S. poultry producers, he said, because of lower labor costs and high production standards.

"If Brazil is limited at all, it is only in market access," Joiner said.

Industry needs more markets

The third problem, he said, is market access. Making current markets more accessible and opening up new markets are crucial to the industry's growth. "This is why everyone was so interested in Cuba opening its markets," he said.

After outlining the problems, Joiner offered possible solutions:

"The U.S. could cut production, although that is very hard to do," he said. "We need to develop more dark-meat products for the domestic market. We need to push hard to open up new markets and aggressively fund the industry fight for market access. We need to take food safety issues seriously and find a way to compete with the Brazilian labor market.

"The picture isn't pretty," Joiner said. "But now you know what it looks like."

While the industry picture is grim, it's ripe for study, said Glenn Ames, an agricultural economist with UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Ames specializes in the poultry industry.

"Mr. Joiner has provided us with a tremendous menu of topics for further work and study here at UGA," he said. "These are topics that are vital for Georgia's economy."

Georgia is the top-producing broiler state in the U.S. Economists figure the economic impact of poultry in the state at more than $13 billion annually.

Coan and students recognized

A luncheon and awards ceremony followed Joiner's lecture. Gaylord Coan, who retired in 2001 as chief executive officer and chairman of the management executive committee of Gold Kist, Inc., received the 2002 Award of Excellence from the UGA CAES Alumni Association.

Two CAES agricultural and applied economics students, Carol Spruill and Swagata Banerjee, were recognized for their induction into Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.

The J.W. Fanning lecture series is named for a former vice president for services and professor of agricultural economics at UGA. Fanning was instrumental in developing public service and outreach at UGA.

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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