No longer a niche category in natural food stores, air-chilled chicken is making its way into conventional supermarkets.
Indeed, Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., rolled out a line under its private-label GreenWise line of natural and organic foods chainwide in December. Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., and several other independent chains plan to add it in the near future. At the same time, processors are expanding their facilities to keep up with retail demand.
Though air-chilled accounts for a tiny fraction of all the chicken sold in the U.S., retailers are seeing growing interest among consumers willing to pay a premium for what some believe is a superior-tasting product. With sales of natural foods growing, too, conventional retailers think having a line can help them compete more effectively with the likes of Whole Foods Market.
Indeed, Publix officials said they planned to create a private-label brand of hormone-free and antibiotic-free chicken but decided their target customer would also appreciate air-chilled product.
Officials at Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets saw the line as a logical addition to its all-natural chicken offerings.
“As a natural and organic retailer, it makes sense to provide our customers with the best natural chicken available,” said Marc Blitstein, the chain's director of meat/seafood and field merchandising. “Many of our customers have asked us about air-chilled chicken, and we value feedback and requests from our customers.”
The chain sources air-chilled chicken from Bell & Evans, the company that was already supplying its all-natural chicken. The retailer brought Bell & Evans' air-chilled product into 44 of its stores in September 2006, and is looking to put it into more stores in the near future, Blitstein said.
Over the last two years, Bell & Evans has invested $30 million in expanding its processing plant in Fredericksburg, Pa., with $10 million of it spent on air-chilling facilities. Now, the company's entire production is air-chilled and it can turn out a million chickens a week, Tom Stone, director of marketing, told SN earlier this month.
“We put in a 2½-mile, single-level air-chilling line in 2005 in March,” Stone said.
Pennington Market in Pennington, N.J., jumped at the chance to carry Bell & Evans' air-chilled product when it became available. “We've been carrying Bell & Evans' all-natural chicken for years. It's the best-selling brand we have,” said Chris Relstab, meat manager at the single-unit, upscale market, which also carries commodity chicken and a couple of other brands of organic chicken.
Another independent retailer told SN that demand for all-natural, organic and air-chilled chicken has been growing, albeit slowly, for some time.
“In the meat department, we're responding to what customers are buying in other parts of the store. Natural and organic are doing well,” said John Gerlach, meat buyer at Stauffers of Kissel Hill, a chain of three stores based in Lititz, Pa.
Gerlach said he has been sourcing free-range, air-chilled chicken from Denver-based Maverick Ranch Natural Meats for at least three years.
“It's not a huge business for us, compared to commodity, but it's growing,” he said. “By now, it makes up about 10% to 15% of sales in the chicken category. People don't seem to mind paying the higher price.”
Sources said the premium price of air-chilled chicken ranges anywhere from 20% to 60% above its counterpart SKU in the commodity chicken category.
Depending on the item, “Maverick's air-chilled product vs. commodity can be twice the price,” Gerlach said.
In processing, air-chilled product is brought down to the desired, safe temperature via blasts of chilled air rather than by ice-water immersion, which is traditionally used in this country to cool chickens and other poultry. Air-chilling preserves the flavor and prevents the chicken from absorbing water, sources told SN. The average absorption rate during ice-water immersion is 3% to 5%, but can rise much higher than that.
“Also, some of the natural juices can be lost in immersion,” Gerlach said.
Flavor is a big part of air-chilled chicken's appeal, Blitstein said. “The flavor of this product is exceptional,” he said.
In fact, the taste, texture and tenderness of air-chilled chicken are superior to immersion-processed chicken, some sources said.
The product appeals to a lot of consumers who simply want the best chicken they can find, sources said. Shoppers have developed sensitive palates and sophisticated tastes as a result of travel and dining out. What's more, they have the money to spend on premium products.
Referring to the higher retails on the product, Blitstein explained that any chicken that meets Wild Oats' standards for all-natural costs more to raise. The birds are given enough room to move around, eat vegetarian feed, do not receive antibiotics and have been given no additional hormones.
Stone from Bell & Evans pointed out that air-chilled product doesn't contain the water that immersion-cooled chicken does. So, for whatever price a customer is paying for air-chilled, he's getting more chicken for his money.
“[With immersion], there can be as much as an 8% to 12% moisture pickup,” Stone said. “We don't do that.”
Some industry sources said the chicken's quality, not necessarily its all-natural status, is the magnet.
“Given the focus on processing methods and taste issues, I'd say [the growing popularity] reflects a trend toward quality more than it does toward organic or natural,” said Michelle Barry, senior vice president at The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash., consumer research firm. “Consumers are definitely willing to pay a premium these days for what they perceive to be higher quality. We see this across all categories and demographics.”
The quality of air-chilled product certainly doesn't cast a shadow on the quality of immersion-cooled chicken. A spokesman for the Washington-based National Chicken Council said the council does not take a position on whether one method of processing is better than the other.
“Both processes, air-chilling and ice-water immersion, produce a fine product,” said spokesman Richard Lobb.
Primarily, it's the smaller, natural chicken producers like Bell & Evans and MBA Poultry, Waverly, Neb. — the pioneer that put Smart Chicken, the first air-chilled chicken here on the market eight years ago — who are expanding facilities to keep up with demand for the product.
The country's two largest producers of commodity chicken have shown no signs of adding an air-chilled operation.
“We've examined the use of air-chilling but have not seen any conclusive evidence that the resulting product tastes better or is safer,” Gary Mickelson, spokesman for Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark., said earlier this month. “We believe the system of chilling with cold water is the best and safest method. Our competitors must agree, since virtually all of them also use cold-water chilling. Ninety-five percent or more of U.S.-produced chicken is water-chilled.”
Likewise, Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms does not offer any air-chilled products, a spokeswoman said.
THE BIG CHILL
The largest chicken processor to get into the air-chilled business is Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride with its Nature Select brand. The company launched the product in November in response to a request from Publix.
“Publix GreenWise Chicken [supplied by Pilgrim's Pride] is our only air-chilled fresh chicken offering,” Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said.
Pilgrim's Pride has added a 9,000-square-foot cooling chamber where up to 16,800 chickens can be air-chilled at a time. A recent investment of approximately $70 million includes automation enhancements and additional space for value-added processing, as well as the air-cooling facility, which itself cost $10 million. While the added capacity also serves the company well for future business, the recent ramp-up came in response to demand at Publix.
In the air-chilled category, Publix offers the full spectrum of products.
“We offer fresh whole birds, boneless breast cuts, as well as bone-in breast, drumsticks, thighs, wings and skinless cuts, and we're raising customer awareness through in-store point-of-sale, as well as our weekly ad fliers,” Brous said.
Publix, however, still reaps the bulk of its fresh chicken sales from conventionally processed commodity chicken, also supplied by Pilgrim's Pride.
“What makes such an arrangement attractive to large retailers like Publix is that we can deliver our air-chilled product along with their regular chicken orders, improving the consistency of their supply” of air-chilled chicken, said Greg Moore, marketing director at Pilgrim's Pride. “We do see interest growing in air-chilled products. That will be a small part of our business, but definitely one that will grow.”
MBA Poultry put air-chilled chicken on the map.
The family-owned Tecumseh, Neb.-based processor began regional distribution of its Smart Chicken label several years ago to selected stores. Now the company distributes the line nationally, and it's generating 75% of sales from conventional supermarkets.
“As far as brands go, Smart Chicken appears to have done the best job of communicating and bringing air-chilled chicken to consumers' attention as a point of differentiation,” said Michelle Barry, senior vice president at The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based consumer research firm.
Ukrop's Super Markets in Richmond, Va., expects to add the line, said Alan Warren, the independent chain's meat/seafood director. “We plan to have this in place in the near future,” he said.
In the beginning, MBA Poultry looked to air-chilling to create a product that would stand out in the marketplace because of its superior quality and flavor. In recent years, however, the line has evolved into an all-natural product, and now there is organic Smart Chicken as well.
Mark Haskins, MBA Poultry's president and chief executive officer, discovered the air-chilling method in Prague, Czech Republic, in 1994. He came back to the States convinced that air-chilling was superior to ice-water baths. He started by air-chilling commodity birds. After about five years, he put all his chickens on a vegetarian diet. In 2005, he added organic birds. He's currently processing about 350,000 birds a week, but with a new plant that's been built on 34 acres of new property, weekly processing will go up to about 500,000 birds, Haskins said.
“Our strategy at MBA is to stay just behind demand,” he said. “We're not producing a commodity.”