Does the US have a chicken shortage? Chicken sandwich wars, COVID-19 key factors
It's hard to put a finger on why chicken wings are running on short supply across the country.
The National Chicken Council stopped short of calling the current market a "shortage," but the organization left no doubt supply is lower than its demand.
From COVID-19 and delivery-friendly comfort food cravings, to a chicken sandwich craze and heavy winter storms in southern regions, there's certainly no shortage of factors at play in the poultry sphere.
"Yes, supply is tight, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a 'shortage.' ” National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super told Delmarva Now. “Chicken producers are doing everything they can to overcome the devastating impact of Mother Nature when she inflicted the once-in-a-lifetime winter storm on Texas and nearby states — major chicken producing regions.
"It will take time and effort to eventually replace the impacted hatchery supply flocks in that region, but supply should catch back up to demand soon."
Super said the "chicken sandwich wars" certainly led to an increased demand for breast meat — from Popeyes, to Chick-fil-a, to McDonald's, to other contenders — but he says the past year alone has shown the U.S. appetite for wings is "pandemic proof."
"Wings travel well and hold up during delivery conditions," he said of the industry producing tens of billions in wings each year. "Plus, they aligned with consumer desire for comfort food during the pandemic. Chicken production remained steady in 2020, and as long as people are sitting around watching TV and maybe drinking a beer, wings will remain in the game."
The demand surge also comes alongside heightened scrutiny of safety issues at meat and poultry plants during the coronavirus pandemic, as many plants became COVID-19 hot spots.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, broiler head — chickens raised for meat — slaughter was down 4% in the first quarter of 2021, with pounds produced down 3%.
Production began picking back up in the beginning of April, according to the National Chicken Council, as broilers slaughtered the week ending April 10 were up 4% compared to last year, and the week ending April 24th up 7%.
Super said producers are working to meet growing demand. But with demand so high, even small gaps in the supply of wings can cause big fluctuations in price.
It's a trend one trade publication noticed in early February, noting high pandemic consumption would catch up to the industry. The pandemic fueled a "veritable wing explosion," with brands like Wingstop reporting double-digit growth, while cold storage of chicken wings reached new lows.
Some restaurants across the country have had to cut wings and certain specials from the menu or adjust prices higher to meet the market.
Local markets haven't reported the same issues.
Delmarva Chicken Association said the supply-side challenges experienced by big producers in Southern states are not being felt the same on the peninsula — having been spared from historic winter storms and other massive weather events.
Perdue Farms deferred to the National Chicken Council when asked for comment. Tyson Foods had not responded to request for comment by late Monday, May 3.
"Chicken producers are pretty back to normal after a lot of curveballs were thrown at us in 2020," said James Fisher, communications manager with DCA. "What we definitely see is an increase in demand."
The chicken sandwich hype has no end in sight.
"When you see Final-Four-style brackets for these sandwiches — you better be ready to satisfy that demand," Fisher said with a laugh.
But Fisher says his team is confident that, as production increases in steadily in 2021, supply and demand will even out as well.
Super put it similarly: "As chicken production begins to resume back to a more normal pace of output in the coming months, and there is a better supply/demand ratio, the market tightness should ease."