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Era of cowboy is over; long live chicken herders

Era of cowboy is over; long live chicken herders
Per capita consumption of chicken has tripled during the past 100 years putting the protein ahead of beef now in terms of consumption.

FOR the first time since the cattle yards in Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago, Ill., were booming at the turn of the 20th century, we're eating more chicken than beef.

Per capita consumption of the Colonel's favorite bird has tripled during the past 100 years to slightly more than 60 lb. Beef started out with a four-to-one advantage over chicken but is now a few ounces behind.

A modern version of the old "Roy Rogers" television program would no longer be heralded as "Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys!" Today, he would be shown gnawing on a chicken leg as he sauntered through the barnyard, trying hard to look as cool as he did 60 years ago.

Trigger might just be an afterthought, too. After all, you don't need a horse to corral a herd of chickens.

There isn't much chance that the trend will reverse itself, either. For one thing, it has been going on since Frank Perdue decided it would be a good thing to feed his chickens marigold seeds and turn their pasty, pale flesh a pleasing shade of yellow.

Don Tyson kicked that can way down the road when he decided "New York dressed" was a primitive way to sell a bird and started offering pieces and parts.

When a few bright marketers decided they could actually cook the bird, charge a premium for what was once a loss-leading football of an item in the supermarket meat case and the public would flock to the product, the deal was done.

The beef business is facing more troubles in the kingdom, too. Beef has always been pricier, allowing poultry to sneak in the back door with cheaper alternatives at restaurants and in the home.

That disparity will keep on growing as foreign demand picks up and the smallest beef herd since the early 1950s puts a serious crimp on product availability. Higher prices don't translate into sales increases in today's troubled economy.

Will we be looking at a seriously bifurcated market by the end of this decade? A low-margin, very-price-sensitive market for ground beef at quick-service restaurants and the family dinner table and another very-high-priced, special-occasion, white-tablecloth market for premium cuts? A 2 oz. burger for a buck at McDonald's or a well-aged 12 oz. fillet for $65 at Ruth's Chris? Will that slice of cheese on a Burger King cheeseburger be thicker than the meat? Will Burger King have to change its name to Poultry Queen?

What's for dinner in your home?

*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.

Volume:86 Issue:02

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