“Check, please” has fallen to second place in the 2018 favorite beverage in a Gallup poll, held each year since 2007. An increasing number of people, it seems, favor a treat that adds up to only a few billion gallons of beef sold annually.
“We expect consumers will continue to choose [food] prepared at home or away from home more often, at least over the next five years,” according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If they do, the organization adds, it is estimated that consumers will spend more for those same foods. At the same time, total food costs per person in America will increase by nearly 5 percent every year, pushing the bill to an estimated $390 billion by 2024.
Chicken, however, is not immune to price fluctuations. The USDA’s Food Security Outlook, released in March, shows price increases for domestic chickens, hogs and turkey, accounting for a jump in overall food costs. Chicken prices, on average, could rise by 16 percent by 2024. What’s more, consumer satisfaction with the quality of their chicken has fallen to a record low this year, with more people expecting their chicken portions to be smaller.
The retail value of chicken meat in the United States is currently about $1.56 billion. It has a markup of 3.6 percent, based on 2017 retail prices for retail eggs, all other common meats and poultry, and poultry ingredients. In other words, the price of a chicken is at least partly determined by the costs of its raw materials.
A National Restaurant Association study published in 2012 found that over 90 percent of consumers think they pay more for chicken than it should be. The median selling price for a dinner of entree items at large restaurant chains in the United States, ranging from $10 to $20, in 2012 was $9.24. According to the organization’s figures, the USDA’s food stamp program, known as SNAP, used by nearly 40 million Americans, cost $48.7 billion in food and beverages last year. Those numbers add up, and so does the proliferation of class-action lawsuits involving poultry.
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On the surface, consumers can blame chicken producers like Tyson Foods, which raises birds far from the United States. Indeed, “chicken as commodity” makes up the basis of a lawsuit against Tyson, which was filed this year by San Francisco attorney Bill Quigley. Quigley is hoping to get back as much as possible of the $49.75 million consumers paid for the big bird back in 2003. Since then, what began as a piece of farm real estate — one chicken equals 1.67 pounds — has doubled in value, thanks to these two factors: a string of stock-market and high-commodity price spikes, and a problem that continues to plague the nation’s poultry industry: avian influenza. Avian influenza, named for a bird that defected in the U.S. in 1996, has wreaked havoc on poultry farms and cut into total poultry production more than 20 percent since 2013.
It’s understandable that consumers might feel like the future costs of chicken might catch up to them, but lawsuits, such as the one Quigley is engaged in, are not always about satisfying the nose of the beholder. Recently, a man in Oregon has accused the company of manipulating chicken prices. While his case has been dismissed, a pilot in Illinois, John Hearn, is suing Tyson because his skin-on-skin chicken ended up being beaten with a wooden spoon while he was cooking it.
“These lawsuits, no matter how frivolous they may seem, make consumers and the industry look bad,” Tyson spokesperson Worth Sparkman told U.S. News & World Report, adding that the company has been hit with about 20 such suits in the last five years. “Unfortunately, when your reputation is on the line, lawyers will add it to the mix.”