Food shoppers may have welcomed the addition of ground turkey and ground pork into the meat market, but University of Georgia research shows ground chicken wouldn't get an equal reception.
Searching for alternative uses for dark-meat chicken, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a UGA research project that studied shoppers' chicken-buying habits.
In a simulated supermarket test, UGA food scientists offered consumer panelists several choices of chicken products. The options were boneless-skinless breasts, kabobs, stir-fry, scallopini, boneless-skinless thighs, bone-in thighs and ground chicken. All except the breast meat were dark-meat chicken products.
"We weren't surprised to see breast meat turn out as the most preferred chicken product," said Kay McWatters, a UGA food scientist. "Kabobs and stir-fry tied for second place. Scallopini (thin, pounded chicken used either as cutlets or rolled around other foods and then cooked) came in third."
Ground chicken was the shoppers' least favorite choice. "The visual ratings were very low," McWatters said. "Consumers just didn't like the way it looked."
Those who said they'd be willing to buy ground chicken also said they'd expect it to cost less per pound than ground beef. They'd most likely use ground chicken in meat sauces and chili, they said. Those are the same ways they use ground pork and ground turkey.
Further supporting Americans' love of white-meat chicken, 67 percent of the consumer panelists preferred white meat. The next biggest group, 23 percent, had no preference.
Among the small percentage who buy dark-meat chicken, most buy legs, drumsticks, thighs and mixed dark-meat pieces, in that order.
If Americans aren't eating dark-meat chicken, who is?
"Our two major export markets for chicken are Russia and Hong Kong/China," said Sara Jackson of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council. "Twenty percent of the broiler meat produced in the United States is exported, and almost all of it is dark-meat chicken."
Jackson said Asian consumers like chicken feet or paws best in addition to dark-meat. Paws are a delicacy in a lot of Asian countries," said Jackson. "Like much of the world, they prefer dark-meat over breast meat."
Russian shoppers also prefer dark-meat. "They don't produce enough chickens for their country," Jackson said. "Farming in Russia suffered as a result of their changes in government."
Jackson said Americans' taste preferences and the law of supply and demand actually work in favor of American poultry growers.
"Because U. S. consumers have an overwhelming preference for breast meat, they are willing to pay premium prices for it," said Jackson. "As a result, the value of dark-meat is lower and U. S. exporters can sell dark-meat broiler products much more profitably in foreign markets.
In 1997, the United States exported chicken meat worth more than $1.8 billion.
Overall, the UGA study found shoppers willing to try new, convenient dark-meat chicken products like stir-fry and scallopini. It also found that they buy chicken based on brand name and color.
"We found that consumers expect breast meat to be light pink and thigh meat to be beige-pink, or they won't buy it," McWatters said.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)