If there is one positive thing to emerge from COVID-19, it is a reminder that our food system is “critical” and “essential.” The chicken industry has a long history of adapting to difficult situations and meeting changing demand, 2020 was no different, nor will 2021 be. 

The chicken industry’s top priorities remain keeping our essential workers safe and keeping chicken stocked in the meat case — in that order. Chicken farmers and processors across the country have stepped up to the plate, literally, to ensure America’s No. 1 protein keeps flowing to the supermarket perimeter during the pandemic. 

COVID prevention and control measures 

It is imperative that a proper balance be struck between ensuring a steady supply of food while maintaining the health and welfare of the people who work tirelessly to produce and deliver that food.  

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

Chicken companies in the spring added additional prevention protocols to help keep our essential employees safe and healthy, such as: social distancing, temperature checks, installing plastic barriers between work stations where social distancing is challenging, providing masks, face shields and gloves for workers, staggering shifts, making breakrooms available outside, multiple hand sanitizing stations, extra cleaning and sanitation of the plant, educating employees in multiple languages about steps to take at home to keep healthy, encouraging sick or vulnerable employees to stay home with paid sick leave, and testing for the virus. The National Chicken Council has also been at the forefront in advocating for priority vaccine access for our essential employees, after health workers and long-term care facilities. 

The most recent data demonstrates these prevention and control measures implemented last spring have been working.  

Quarantine kitchen 

Throughout the last year, as home kitchens took center stage, Americans have been relying on chicken as a healthy and convenient protein that can be enjoyed by everyone. In fact, three-quarters (75%) of Americans who eat chicken say they prepare chicken at home at least once a week. During the first 9 months of COVID-19, retail chicken sales increased $1.3B, up 19.5% from the same period last year, according to IRI and 210 Analytics. 

The National Chicken Council recently unveiled the findings of a survey fielded with the goal of better understanding chicken consumption trends and preferences in the United States. Along with a host of interesting metrics, the survey includes insight into the impact of the pandemic on chicken consumption habits, showing that half (50%) of Americans who eat chicken say they have eaten it more than any other protein during COVID-19. 

With everyone adjusting to a new way of life, chicken has been a reliable source of nutritious protein in an unpredictable time. This research shows how the hard work of the entire chicken industry during this challenging time has supported many Americans who are looking for an easy-to-prepare, affordable and healthy meal. 

Chicken has been popular during COVID-19 because it is easy to prepare and great for meal prepping. 

A staple of many diverse meals, it is no question that chicken is a versatile protein. Nearly half (48%) of survey respondents say they increased the amount of chicken they prepared at home during the pandemic, while 39% said they increased the ways they prepare chicken. No matter how Americans prefer it, chicken is an easy meal to prepare and is perfect for meal prepping, especially when we are spending more time than ever at home. According to Food and Wine, chicken was the most tweeted about food in the United States, making it the #1 quarantine food. 

When it comes to chicken decisions, Americans are split. 

Approximately one half (52%) of Americans prefer grilled chicken while the other would opt for fried (48%). Americans also just barely prefer boneless wings (53%) over traditional bone-in wings. Plus, two in five Americans say that the breast is their favorite cut of chicken, but wing (20%), thigh (17%) and drumstick (14%) are also fierce competitors. Three-quarters (74%) of chicken eaters would prefer to eat real chicken over plant-based alternatives. 

Snack time  

With more eating occurring at home, increased eating occasions between mealtimes has brought new meaning to snacks. With more households and meal preparers focused on in-home food consumption, chicken in many varieties and ways has stepped-up to the plate, according to the same survey. 

Anticipating the need for a mini-meal or snack, consumers are reportedly cooking a few extra pieces of chicken for planned leftovers. At the other end of the snack lineup are several relatively new convenient chicken products. Chicken bites, poppers, popcorn, and similar products are testing new flavors, packaging, and combinations with vegetables. No doubt, a good number of these products will prove successful, especially as the stay-at-home crowd are most receptive to new tastes that feature chicken.  

One product that offers great potential in this environment is roll ups. While rollups have traditionally used ham, cheese, and compatible ingredients, it is a natural time to rollout chicken for rollups. Thinly sliced chicken breast meat or thigh meat easily combines with a wide variety of cheeses and vegetables. Rollups have great versatility. They can be served cold, hot, handheld, in a wrap, for an affordable, healthy snack. Rollups can be positioned for the budget conscious food shopper or readily go upscale with organic chicken versions that add upscale cheeses.  

Some of the more traditional chicken snacks like wings, both bone-in and boneless, continue to enjoy snack popularity. A good number of the retail grocery chains are reminding their home delivery and curbside pickup customers to include wings, hot, chilled, or frozen in their bundle of ordered food.  

It is also anticipated that more limited time unique chicken snacks will be offered by supermarkets especially at delis. These will focus on holiday occasions, certain sporting events or even stock up your freezer to better enjoy the snowed-in days.   

Supermarkets are working diligently to capture and keep as much market share as possible while they can. They realize that one day consumers will return to a more normal pattern of eating away-from-home.    

Serving consumers snacking needs and desires, especially with chicken, should allow supermarkets to be more competitive in the overall food market in the months and years ahead. 

Tom Super is senior vice president at the National Chicken Council in Washington, D.C.