Missing Chickens: Where Have All the Small Ones Gone?

chickenI've really missed those cut-up broiler/fryers and those light-weight boneless, skinless chicken breasts I used to buy.  Now, I can't find them in either supermarkets or small grocery stores.  Why do I want them?  1) My husband and I are not big eaters of chicken, so we saved money by purchasing the smaller ones.  2) They took less time to cook, and my convection oven and I are always in a hurry. 3)  I knew smaller breasts come from younger chickens and was convinced (though this may not be correct) that they were more tender and tasty.  But above all, the mystery of their disappearance intrigued me.  Surely they hadn't just flown away.  A Chicago Tribune article published in July 2014 mentioned that broiler/fryers had vanished but didn't explain where they'd gone. Therefore, I was still left wondering. 


One of our Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board members, food scientists Dr. Catherine Cutter, referred me to her colleague at Penn State University, Dr. R. Michael Hulet, associate professor of animal science and an expert on poultry.  He was kind enough to provide the detailed explanation below.  Further comments and advice come from three Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board members.


Where are those little chickens?


Dr. Hulet: "Lack of small boneless breast meat portions in stores is an interesting observation.  The smaller birds (28 or 30 days of age) are desired by the fast-food industry, and most of them end up in KFC, Popeye’s, or other such fast food places.  The higher demand means that regular stores have to pay more for the smaller carcasses, and it is inefficient to cut them up for breast meat. Furthermore, on a percentage basis, birds of this size do not yield much breast meat. 


"The middle-sized birds (35-38 days old) are normally put into what are called tray-packs and sold as breasts (boneless-skinless, or bone in breast), wings, thighs (boneless or with bone), and drums. 


"The large birds (53-56 days of age) are cut up into meat portions with the boneless skinless breast and tenders being primarily sold for breast sandwiches and chicken “fingers” and the dark meat made into further processed items such as meat rolls, bologna, salami, pastrami, sandwich meats, etc. 


"Right now, the decrease in pork and beef usage and the increase in demand for chicken to serve those primary markets make the boning of smaller birds inefficient and not economical. Therefore, they do not show up in retail stores. 


 "As you can see, none of the birds are very old. Tenderness is more of a matter of processing method (chilling) and cooking technique." [In other words, Dr. Hulet is suggesting that the fault lies not with the chicken but with me. I need to become a better cook or at least find a better recipe.]


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser: [Dr. Bowser's explanation echoes in part the message of Dr. Hulet but also offers a new point.]: "The industry has been working hard to establish product uniformity and efficiency. The size of a chicken part is an important factor in how it may be processed, packaged, sold, and used. (e.g. Does it fit on a bun? Does it have a certain nutritional value?) Growers also have found that chickens of a certain size return the most for their investment. Smaller chickens can be more expensive and less profitable to produce."  


What can a consumer do to compensate?


Dr. Hulet suggests asking the supermarket butcher to trim the packaged chicken to the desired size for faster cooking.


JeanMarie Brownson, the author of "Slow down, you grill too fast" (the Chicago Tribune article mentioned earlier), says this about the larger whole chickens or the cut-up parts: "These behemoths take more time and finesse to cook through without drying."  She recommends lowering the heat and turning up the patience. Brownson says, "Indirect cooking on a covered grill proved to be the ticket to success." That's a good tip but not very practical during a snowstorm. However, she also says a 325°F oven will do.  In addition, Brownson points out that the extra meat on those big birds can be put to many uses, such as sandwiches, the next day.  See the link below (in "Sources") for Brownson's recipe for roasted chicken with lemon and herbs.  [If you cook it in the oven, consider covering the pan with aluminum foil for all or part of the time.]


Another suggestion from Brownson:  If your grocery store doesn't carry small broiler/fryers, try a butcher shop.  The butcher there might have one or be able to order it for you. 


Dr. Cutter suggests using Cornish hens for smaller poultry entrées.  I've often done that and found them delicious.  I stuff mine for more flavor, but I'm careful to check to temperature of the stuffing as well as the meat.  Both must be at least 165°F to be safe.


Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein gives the following advice: "The smaller the size, the more expensive per pound, so these won't compete with our bigger chickens.  That's why we have knives and freezers.  If you want smaller pieces, cut the bigger ones in half."


Apparently, I'll have to get used to preparing heftier chickens at home and eat the tiny ones at Burger King.




Dr. R. Michael Hulet, Ph.D. Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Animal Science


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Chicago  Tribune, "Good  Eating" section  "Slow down, you grill too fast"  July 23, 2014.


Chicago Tribune "Low and slow grilled chicken"




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