The Dark Side of the Bird

For years we’ve exported dark chicken meat to Russia—but that market is drying up. So what shall we do with the rest of the chicken?
Taken from an interesting piece on Slate.com by Nadia Arumugam – click here to read the full article (I’ve edited this version).

There’s no question that Americans overwhelmingly prefer white chicken meat to dark. They eat chicken almost 10 times a month on average—according to data from 2007— but on less than two of those occasions do they choose chicken legs, thighs, or drumsticks. 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…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.)

But why are Americans are so enamored of white meat to begin with. Why do they treat dark meat—perfectly edible dark meat, savoured 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.

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.

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 though, this is drying up.

But aside from finding new markets, what can be done? One option 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.

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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