The poultry industry used to have real problems finding markets for dark meat. Frozen legs and thighs were exported overseas by the container load, which helped buoy prices somewhat, but historically, dark meat was something the industry tired not to market but to dispose of. As a result, in many years, the ability of foreign buyers to absorb large quantities of dark meat was the key to profitability.
That’s all changing, however, as exports continue to expand and consumer tastes evolve, the combined effect of which is that leg quarter and thigh meat sales are helping bring the U.S. poultry industry back to profitability.
According to nutritionists, dark poultry meat derives its flavor from the richer concentration of muscle myoglobin, which is a protein that binds heme iron and thus oxygen to support muscular action. Birds that fly have an abundance of myoglobin in their muscle tissue, but with modern breeding and production methods, broiler chickens have appreciable myoglobin protein only in the dark meat.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reported that poultry processors and food retailers have capitalized on increased demand for chicken leg and thigh cuts over the last few years, to the point that both that periodic daily shortages of dark chicken meat have become commonplace. In fact, the price of dark meat cuts now often reaches parity with breast meat chicken breast cuts.
Why is that? Three reasons:
- Technology. Chicken processors have invested in more sophisticated deboning equipment that allows them to produce deboned leg and thigh meat economically.
- Popularity. TV food shows are helping to spur demand, as chefs talk up dark meat as more forgiving and less prone to dry out on the grill, while ground dark meat works well shaped into burgers, stuffed into or stirred into a Bolognese sauce and served over pasta. Specialty retailers, such as Whole Foods, and upscale marketers like Bell & Evans have pioneered the marketing of dark meat products, such as ravioli and stuffed chicken thighs. Even mainstream companies like Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart are developing and marketing dark meat products, such as chicken sausage.
- Flavor. The most important factor, though, is that consumers have grown tired of chicken breast meat. Collectively, we’ve learned to appreciate the richer flavor and more robust texture of dark poultry meat. Finally.
And without that growing consumer demand, all the cutting-edge technology and high-powered promotion in the world wouldn’t sell a single package of leg meat.