The Dark Side of the Bird

For years we’ve exported dark chicken meat to Russia—but that market is drying up.

A chicken

There’s no question that Americans overwhelmingly prefer white chicken meat to dark. We eat chicken almost 10 times a month on average—according to data from 2007— but on less than two of those occasions do we choose chicken legs, thighs, or drumsticks. At the household level, this isn’t problematic; families can buy prepackaged white meat instead of whole birds. But magnify this preference millions of times over on a national scale, and the imbalance could, theoretically, lead to canyons of perfectly edible chicken going to waste.

Historically, Russia has helped keep this hypothetical from becoming a reality. Through a miracle of yin-and-yang cultural predilections, Russians actually like gamier dark meat. And since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, they have imported it in stunningly large quantities. In 2009 alone Russia doled out $800 million for 1.6 billion pounds of U.S. leg quarters.

Recently, however, the Russian appetite for our chicken legs has waned. Last January, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin barred U.S. chicken from Russian shores, supposedly because it’s treated with “unsafe” antimicrobial chlorine. Although Russia subsequently lifted that ban, in November it prohibited the use of frozen poultry in processed products (again citing safety concerns), effectively preventing the use of American chicken in Russian nuggets—since it’s shipped frozen. There’s no scientific evidence that chlorination, much less freezing, poses any danger to health, so it’s doubtful that safety is the real impetus for the bans. It’s far more likely that Putin simply wants Russia to become less reliant on imports. (In fact, he’s said publicly that he intends for Russia to be fully self-sufficient in chicken production by 2012.) Assuming Putin gets his way, American poultry companies will have to rely on alternative outlets for its dark meat.

This raises the question of why Americans are so enamored of white meat to begin with. Why do we treat dark meat—perfectly edible dark meat, savored abroad—as a waste product?

Up until 50 years ago, retailers sold chicken almost exclusively in the form of whole birds. This practice began to change in the 1960s, when federal inspection of poultry slaughterhouses became mandatory and chicken producers realized they could save money by recycling substandard carcasses into bits and pieces rather than simply discarding them.

The most popular cut—then as now—was the breast. According to several food scientists I interviewed for this article, this preference developed in part because of the perception that chicken legs are tough. This may have been the case in our great-great-grandparents’ day, when chickens were almost exclusively free-range and regular exercise resulted in muscular legs. With factory farming, these muscles atrophy, and the legs become quite tender. Nevertheless, the habit of rejecting legs in favor of breasts seems to have been passed down from one generation to the next.

Tenderness isn’t the only reason Americans reach for breasts above all other parts; color also shapes this choice. According to Dr. Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, consumers unconsciously perceive dark meat as dirty when compared to the breast, perhaps because it’s situated at the back and bottom of the animal. There’s nothing actually harmful about dark meat: The brown hue comes from a compound called myoglobin, which helps transport oxygen to the muscles so that they function efficiently. As chickens spend most of their lives standing, their legs are full of it. Inversely, since chickens don’t fly, as ducks or geese do, their breast muscles contain only a negligible reserve of myoglobin resulting in significantly lighter meat in their upper bodies. Of course few people care to study up on chicken biochemistry before dinner—which brings us squarely to another reason why chicken legs rarely make it into our shopping carts: We’re squeamish. “When you’re faced with a chicken leg, there’s no hiding the fact that it’s the leg of an animal,” says Pelchat. The modern consumer is nearly as averse to seeing a leg on their plate as they are to seeing a fish head. We have grown accustomed to buying boneless, bloodless slabs of meat in cellophane-wrapped trays and don’t want to be reminded of the provenance of our meal, that it came from an animal that was once living, breathing, and moving. A nondescript breast fillet appeals since it bears little resemblance to an actual chicken.

Ask people why they don’t like dark chicken meat, though, and they’re unlikely to cite an indisposition to digging into unvarnished animal parts. According to William Roenigk, senior vice president of the National Chicken Council, Americans say they choose white chicken meat by a 2-to-1 margin mainly for health reasons. A quick Google search or a flip through a fitness magazine yields advice condemning fatty legs in favor of the lean breast. And the poultry industry hasn’t been shy about jumping on this bandwagon, either. Take the 2007 Perdue commercial featuring a lithe Jim Perdue bounding through his offices in a fit of acrobatics while promoting his 99 percent fat-free, high-protein, carb-free, hand-trimmed “guaranteed healthy” breasts. Or the Perdue Chicken Cookbook from 2000, in which Frank Perdue’s wife Mitzi advises readers to “choose breast meat” so as to avoid fat and calories. She even writes that “Frank watches his cholesterol and I’ve never seen him go for anything but breast meat.”

Even the U.S. fast-food industry uses breast meat in its chicken products to profit from rising consumer beliefs that white meat is nutritionally superior. In October 2003, McDonald’s reformulated its 30-percent dark-meat recipe for Chicken McNuggets to create a reduced-calorie, all-white offering. The new six-piece pack shed 60 calories and 5 grams of fat. Though costs were higher, McDonalds did not increase the price of the nuggets; the well-publicized gamble paid off and sales increased by 35 percent.

The catch is that when it comes to fat and calories, there is very little to distinguish between boneless, skinless chicken breast and boneless, skinless thighs. According to the Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of the former contains 0.56 grams of saturated fat and 114 calories, and the latter 1 gram of saturated fat and 119 calories. Dark chicken meat is also nutrient rich, containing higher levels of iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins B6 and B12 than white meat.

The myth that white meat is significantly more healthful than dark chicken meat is nearly as old as the retailer practice of selling chicken in parts. In the 1960s and ‘70s, medical studies revealed links first between cholesterol and heart attacks, then between cholesterol and high-fat foods, like red meat. The medical community advocated that Americans should consume less beef and opt instead for lower-fat options such as chicken. With the fervent encouragement of the chicken industry, the newly health-conscious nation heartily embraced this advice and chicken consumption began to rise steeply. The average American was eating 36 pounds of chicken a year in 1970; by 1985 this had risen to 51 pounds, at the expense of beef. * Poultry producers also realized that they could market and advertise the slight disparity in calories and fat content between dark and white chicken meat to their further advantage—not only to perpetuate the chicken craze, but also to retail a “premium” poultry product that could be sold at a higher price. They didn’t deliberately malign chicken legs; they simply wholeheartedly extolled the salubrious qualities of breast meat. Chicken was a healthy option, but chicken breast was the healthiest, and it turned out that consumers were willing to shell out for the well-being of their families.

Once Americans signaled a clear preference for breast meat in the ‘60s and ‘70s, producers needed an outlet for the dark meat that wasn’t selling domestically. They knew that foreign markets, notably in Asia, prized the moist, succulent, and richly flavored leg meat. (In Asia, it’s the breasts that end up in bargain buckets.) And so they worked to convert a domestic waste product into a profitable export. American chicken legs were purchased eagerly by Asian importers, and for a while a happy equilibrium was struck. Yet in the 1980s, when chicken consumption in the United States increased at a phenomenal rate, the poultry industry needed new outlets to absorb the growing numbers of discarded legs.

It was most fortuitous, then, that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, resulting in the relaxation of trade restrictions that had hindered commerce with the formerly Communist state. U.S. chicken exporters, eager to exploit this fresh market, were able to underprice virtually all other animal protein produced in Russia, and American dark meat flooded the country. The chicken legs became so popular that locals endearingly nicknamed them “Bush legs,” after President Bush Sr. In 1975 the United States was exporting less than 140 million pounds of chicken globally. By 1995 this figure reached nearly 4 billion—with nearly 1.5 billion going to Russia.

Now the once symbiotic relationship is showing strain. Over the course of 2010, William Roenigk estimates that just 0.6 billion pounds of dark meat was exported to Russia. That’s 1 billion pounds less than in 2009, and 1.7 billion less than the peak of 2001.

A much more realistic option is to find new export destinations. In fact the chicken industry has already started courting Mexico and China as well as Eastern European, Latin American, and smaller Asian nations with a similar palette to the Russians. Competition for foreign markets is, however, extremely stiff, with Brazil—currently the world’s largest exporter of chicken—posing the biggest threat. And in this rapidly changing marketplace it’s unlikely that producers can rely on exports alone to make use of all our unwanted dark meat.

Another solution would be for fast-food companies to save the day by carrying a dark meat product, which, despite everything you’ve just read, might actually happen in the not-too-distant future. But only because science has managed to transform dark meat into white. Some 10 years ago, when the chicken industry was in a similar state of crisis due to the collapse of the Russian Ruble, the USDA provided funding to find new uses for the much-maligned cut. Dr. Mirko Betti, a professor of nutritional science, embraced the challenge while completing his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia and developed a product similar to surimi, the synthetic crabmeat found in Asian eateries. The production process is simple; excess water is added to ground dark meat and the slurry is centrifuged at high speed to remove the fat and myoglobin. At the end there are three distinct layers: fat, water, and the extracted meat. The first two are discarded, and the third, which resembles a sort of meaty milkshake, is where the money is. It promises endless commercial applications (in nuggets, burgers, and other processed products) for businesses that can both fulfill demands for “white meat” and exploit the favorable supply-side price of dark meat. Betti, who’s currently at the University of Alberta, is confident that in just a couple of years his meaty milkshake will be featured on a menu near you.

Roenigk doesn’t share Betti’s enthusiasm for fake breasts, and suggests that to compensate for the glut, larger amounts of dark meat will simply be diverted to outlets that already make use of this “waste” product. “While Americans might not feed themselves dark meat, they don’t seem to have any problems feeding it to their pets,” he says. And we don’t have a problem feeding it to the poor, either. Last summer, the USDA announced that it would purchase up to $14 million dollars of dark chicken meat “products” for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks.

Despite the loss of the Russian market, the ever-resourceful chicken industry is still some way off from dumping dark chicken meat in landfills, and no doubt it will continue to mine this discarded commodity for profit—no matter how meager. Or maybe the industry will find a more permanent solution to the American taste imbalance. Since the 1970s, poultry producers have been altering the ratio of breast meat to dark meat through strategic selective breeding—with great success. Thirty years ago the yield of breast meat from an average chicken was 36 percent of the bird’s total retail weight; today it’s more than 40 percent. The cellophane-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breast halves ubiquitous in grocery stores used to weigh 4 ounces in 1980; today they weigh nearly 5.5 ounces. Birds with all breast and no legs—pure science fiction or a future reality?

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Correction, Jan. 26, 2011: This piece originally provided two, contradictory estimates of average chicken consumption in the United States in 1970 versus 1985. (Return to the corrected sentence.)