KANSAS CITY, MO - At the height of the coronavirus, demand for chicken, particularly at retail, was very strong. For example, retail sales were up about 35% on average over the last three months compared to the same timeframe last year.

“It seems that anything labeled ‘chicken’ is selling well at the grocery store,” said Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, Washington, D.C. “Your typical mainstays like boneless/skinless breasts and tenders, but we’re also seeing more wings and whole birds being offered in the meat case.” 

Strong retail sales, however, don’t make up for the loss of foodservice demand, which is typically about 50% of the industry’s portfolio. 

“Hopefully in the next three months we will see a gradual reopening of the foodservice industry beyond just take-out,” Super said.

Oakwood, Ga.-based Wayne Farms, like many producers, reported wide swings in demand during the coronavirus outbreak. At one point, restaurant and other foodservice demand was down 40%, said Megan Ernst, the company’s senior brand manager.

At the same time, however, grocery store sales spiked.

By May, foodservice was starting to come back, and Wayne Farms was looking forward to smoother sailing ahead.

“Continued demand for poultry at wholesale and retail will drive business for the few months at least, probably until restaurant and foodservice demand return to historic levels,” Ernst said.

During the outbreak, Wayne Farms has seen stronger demand for bigger retail chicken packs.

“With consumers cooking and eating more at home and making fewer grocery shopping trips, consumers are seeking larger package sizes of chicken,” she said. “Larger package sizes provide more volume for increased at-home meals and limits grocery trips, since consumers have enough to freeze for later or to carry them through until they shop again.”

Experimentation, convenience trending

Also trending is consumers’ willingness to try new brands. As product availability varies and consumers are seeing more empty shelves than they're used to, Wayne Farms is seeing a willingness to try new chicken brands and products.

Convenience is also on the rise. With all of the social distancing and at-home cooking, Wayne Farms is seeing more interest in fully cooked, easy-to-prep, better-for-you chicken products to help take some of the heavy lifting off the at-home cook — while still providing a healthy protein option to feed the whole family. 

Ernst characterizes Wayne Farms as a “market-driven company.” In practice, that means offering choice and products that meet a variety of needs.

At the end of 2017, the company introduced its Naked Truth Premium Chicken for retailers and customers who wanted verified proof of animal care practices. Naked Truth is Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Step 2 rated for animal care and carries many attractive attributes for time-constrained consumers who are also focused on health and wellness.

Those include vegetable and grain-based diet (no animal by products), all-natural, no artificial ingredients or preservatives, and antibiotics are never, ever used throughout the process.

“We introduced a line of unique, fully-cooked, easy-to-finish products, for the frozen meat case, and continue to receive positive feedback on the offerings,” Ernst said.

Wayne Farms also has plans to launch new, chef-inspired offerings that focus on the home cook later in 2020. Watch for news on these new products, coming this fall.

Also new at Wayne Farms, earlier this year the company launched an enhanced, customer-friendly website in January at IPPE in Atlanta.

“Not only will customers find more and detailed information about our brands, they'll also find a blog, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at our practices. We've received a lot of positive feedback from customers about it.”

A focus on safety

The number one focus for poultry producers right now has been increasing efforts to keep workers safe in the processing plant, Super said.

“In response to COVID-19, each chicken company has added additional protective measures to help keep employees safe and healthy,” he said. “Companies are following all of the CDC and local health department guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans.”

Additional measures include:

  • Increasing cleaning and sanitation frequencies and intensities for equipment and common areas, such as the breakroom and vending machines, at processing facilities
  •  Increase frequency of handwashing/sanitation for employees and increased access to hand sanitizing stations
  • Encouraging employees to stay home if they are not feeling well or believe they may have been exposed to the virus, while still receiving pay and no attendance penalty
  • Heightening employee screening for any signs of illness, including temperature checks before entering the plant
  • Practicing social distancing not only in common areas, such as break rooms and cafeterias, but also on production lines where possible
  • Implementing travel restrictions and only allowing essential personnel into the plant
  • Educating employees about the virus and ways to avoid catching it, and posting educational information in a variety of languages
  • Training company nurses on CDC protocols for COVID-19
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, and permitting employees to bring their own PPE
  • Installing plastic dividers between workstations and in breakrooms

NCC, meanwhile, is assisting its members by advocating for tax relief for frontline workers and seeking direct federal assistance for chicken farmers displaced by COVID.

High-tech help

Laurel, Miss.-based Sanderson Farms is now offering a hassle-free solution to consumers wondering what to make for dinner.

The company has developed both the first Amazon Alexa-enabled recipe skill and Google Home experience within the chicken industry, allowing consumers to ask their smart speaker how to make dishes, such as garlic parmesan chicken wings, Mediterranean chicken thighs, and chicken fajitas.

With over 170 Sanderson Farms recipes available, all consumers need to do is enable the skill on any Google Home or Amazon Echo device, and their virtual assistant will walk them through recipe ingredients and directions.

“We wanted to enter into the voice space, as so many other brands are working with Google Home, Amazon Echo, and other smart speakers,” said Hilary Burroughs, Sanderson Farms’ marketing director. “We realized no other chicken producers were utilizing Google Home and Amazon Alexa technology and took this opportunity to be the first.”

In addition to the recipe skill, Sanderson Farms is working on additional smart speaker capabilities, such as cooking tips, frequently asked questions, and recipes by cut of chicken. “We eventually want to get to a point where a consumer can open the fridge and tell their smart speaker what they have available, and the smart speaker will suggest a recipe based on those ingredients,” continued Burroughs.

“With the Sanderson Farms smart speaker skill, it is our goal to make everyday life easier for consumers,” said Lampkin Butts, Sanderson Farms’ president and chief operating officer. “By providing some voice-activated help in the kitchen, users can spend less time googling recipes and flipping through cookbooks, and more time enjoying meals with family and friends.”

Perdue expands free-range offerings

As part of the company’s ongoing commitments to animal care, Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms is leading the industry in raising chickens with outdoor access and has recently expanded its free-range product offerings under its PERDUE HARVESTLAND® label.

Building on the company’s leadership as the number-one producer of organic chicken in the country, Perdue achieved its goal to provide outdoor access in 25% of its chicken houses by January 2020. Reaching this latest milestone in the company’s animal care journey secures Perdue as the total leader in raising chickens with outdoor access.

“We are constantly addressing not only the needs of our chickens, but also their wants. This includes providing them with the freedom and environment to express normal behavior,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, DVM, diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians and senior vice president of live production and technology innovation for Perdue Farms. “In our experience, encouraging natural activity for our chickens is a component to maintaining their overall health. We believe there is a correlation between chickens raised with outdoor access and producing a better chicken for the consumer.”

Perdue family farmers converted nearly 700 chicken houses from conventional growing operations to meet free-range standards, including adding windows, environmental enrichments, and safe outdoor access – the vast majority of which the company subsidized.

“Perdue is leading the way among the top poultry producers when it comes to raising the bar on the treatment of chickens,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “Nearly 200 food companies — from fast food to family dining to foodservice — have committed to exclusively sourcing chicken meat from farms that meet higher welfare standards. Perdue is doing the right thing while gaining a competitive advantage. In the meantime, other major producers aren’t making improvements and are even resisting progress. They’ll lose out in the marketplace as Perdue meets the demand for a better way of farming.”

“Reaching this goal is an important milestone in our animal care journey and for our company. As we celebrate our 100th anniversary this year, free-range practices harken back to when Arthur and Pearl Perdue raised chickens literally in the backyard of their now-iconic farmhouse,” said Gudjon Olafsson, vice president of marketing at Perdue Farms. “Nearly half of all consumers would like the meat department of their grocery stores to carry more free-range items*. We’re answering that call by significantly expanding the free-range offerings under our popular PERDUE® HARVESTLAND® brand – the first coast-to-coast offering of its kind – and available nationally in grocery stores, supercenters, and online.”

As part of Perdue Farms’ commitment to transparency, the company is adding a QR code to all PERDUE® HARVESTLAND® products that, when scanned, will tell the story of the family farms and farmers who contributed to growing the food in each package.

“Consumers increasingly desire more transparency behind where their food comes from, which includes the people and processes behind their food,” added Olafsson. “We couldn’t do what we do without the dedication of our farm families, and we’re proud to highlight their efforts and individual stories in connection to the food they help produce.”  

This story is from the June 2020 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. To view the full magazine, click here