Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Food Trends Memo: Air-Chilled Chickens Could Become 'Hot' in the U.S.

In the world of chicken processing, marketing and sales, it seems what's now being air-chilled also is becoming a potentially hot commodity, so to speak.

A number of upscale grocers in the U.S. have recently started selling air-chilled chickens, which the retailers' say taste better than water-cooled birds. Air-chilled, water-cooled? It sounds more like a car motor than a chicken, doesn't it?

Perhaps a little background is in order: The traditional method of "cooling" chickens in the U.S. poultry industry is to immerse the bird in chlorinated ice water after it's been slaughtered. Within four hours after a chicken is slaughtered, the USDA requires processors to get the bird's carcass temperature down to 40 degrees in order to reduce the bacteria level in the chicken. This generally takes about an hour in the chlorinated ice water bath. Multiple chickens are water-bathed at the same time.

By contrast, air-chilling which has been used in Western Europe for at least 45 years, cools chickens after slaughter by blasting them with cold air. After the birds are slaughtered, they are sprayed with chlorinated water inside and out. Then they are whisked one at a time down a one-mile track through a chamber, where they're misted with blasts of cold air. Both chilling methods are designed to reduce bacteria in the birds after they're slaughtered.

Numerous supermarkets and butcher shops in Western Europe have sold the air-chilled birds for decades, and air-chilling has been used by poultry processors in the region for about 45 years However, the concept has only recently been implemented by a handful of poultry processors in the U.S., which is why until now it was near-impossible to buy a non-ice water-cooled chicken in America.

But, as we said above, that's changing. Whole Foods Market, Inc. is the leader in offering air-chilled chickens for sale in the U.S. in fact, even though 99% of the chickens slaughtered and processed in the U.S. are still cooled the old fashion way, by dunking the dead bird in a huge tub of ice water, the Supernatural grocer has decided to eventually convert most of its full-service meat counters in its U.S. stores to sell only air-chilled chicken.

First up for Whole Foods' are its Northern California division stores. The grocer is in the process of changing-over the full-service meat cases in all of its 25 stores in the region so that soon only air-chilled chickens will be sold in them. The air-chilled birds are being sold in a number of Whole Foods' San Francisco Bay Area stores already, with the remaining stores set to begin doing so soon. Whole Foods' stores are selling the air-chilled chickens for $2.49 pound.

Another upscale San Francisco Bay Area-based grocer, Andronico's Markets, which operates eight supermarkets in the region, just last week started carrying the air-chilled chickens in all of its stores' full-service meat cases.

Proponents of air-chilled chicken argue that among other things, the simple fact you are getting a chicken without the water added from the time spent in the cold water dip makes the method--and thus the resulting bird--preferable to them. (Both methods use chlorinated water. However, in the air-chilled method the water is just misted inside and outside the chicken before it's air-chilled. In the water bath method, the bird is plunged into the chlorinated water for about an hour.)

The three main arguments the proponents of air-chilled chicken site as to why they believe its superior to ice water-cooled chicken are: safety, flavor and texture.


Since air-chilled chickens are handled separately rather than together, which is the case with ice water-dipped bids who share a communal bathtub, pro air-chilled advocates argue they contain less bacteria from cross-contamination. The results of studies comparing the two methods and bacteria levels are mixed however.

For example, a study at the University of Nebraska in 2000 concluded that 350 air-chilled chickens had about 20% less bacteria than the same number of ice water-cooled birds did. The study examined only one air-chilled poultry processing plant and one water-cooled plant however.

However, last month Consumer Reports found that of 28 chickens they bought in a supermarket for the test, five had salmonella and 19 has campylobacter, another form of bacteria sometimes present in raw chicken. Both forms of bacteria can cause illness. However, the bacteria strains can be killed by cooking the chicken to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Lastly, a study published last year in the Journal of Food Protection concluded that both air-chilling and ice water-bathing worked equally in reducing bacteria in processed chickens. In other words, the researchers reported that one method wasn't better than the other from a food safety perspective.

Flavor and Texture

Pro air-chilled advocates believe the birds' taste more natural and less artificial than ice water-dipped birds do. the supporters' primary taste argument is that because air-chilled birds aren't soaked in water, they don't absorb water like the ice water submerged chickens do. As a result, the air-chilled proponents say the air cooling method leaves the real or natural taste of the chicken undiluted.

the air-chilled supporters have some scientific evidence on their side in this argument. Numerous studies have shown that ice water-chilled chicken absorbs from 2% -to- 12% of its weight on average in added moisture. According to a number of food scientists, that moisture ends up in the chickens skin, which they suggest results in a less-crisp cooked chicken. This scientific evidence is backed up by practical evidence from professional chefs. Many of them prefer to use air-chilled chickens, especially for roasting, because they say the end result is a bird with far crisper skin and better color.

Air-chilled chicken in its infancy in U.S.

Although the air-chilled method has been popular with poultry processors in Western Europe for at least four decades, only a handful of companies are using the method in the U.S.

Nebraska-based MBA Smart Chicken was the first poultry processor in the USA to employ the air-chilled method in 1998. A few other companies have followed the poultry company's lead, but it's still a tiny, niche market.

Pitman Farms, a small poultry company based in Fresno, California, started air-chilling some of its chickens two years ago and has created a strong and growing niche market for the non-ice water-bathed birds.

The Fresno poultry processors' air-chilled chicken brand, "Mary's Air-Chilled Chicken," is being sold at Southern California Whole Foods stores, the Andronico's chain mentioned above, and at numerous upscale multi and single store independent supermarkets, and at some natural foods stores, in California. About half of Pitman Farms' chickens are currently processed using the air-chilled method. The other 50% are ice water-bathed.

Southern California's gourmet grocery chain Bristol Farms, which is owned by SuperValu, Inc., is selling the company's birds under its own store brand at all of its stores in the Southern California region and at its one store in Northern California, in San Francisco.

In fact, Bristol Farms recently stopped selling water-cooled birds altogether in its stores, and is now offering only air-chilled varieties. Other food retailers such as the Wegmans chain in the eastern United States and HEB in Texas are selling the air-chilled chickens, as well as the traditional ice water-bathed birds, in some of their stores.

Air-chilling and the bird of the future

The history of chicken raising, processing and marketing in the U.S. is an interesting one. Not all that long ago, most chickens were raised locally and free-range-style. (The term free-range would have been redundant then.) Additionally, the birds were raised cage-free (another redundant term then), and fed a primarily pesticide-free, hormone-free and antibiotic-free diet.

However, when chicken raising and processing became a big business, and "factory-style" poultry farming was invented, the birds' began being raised in cages and were fed a formulated diet of grain grown using pesticides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizer. Further, the chickens were fed antibiotics to minimize disease and given hormones to plump then up fast.

Then, beginning in the late 1960's and 1970's a "back to the future" poultry farming movement began. A few small farmers began raising the birds the old fashion way again. Then in the 1980's, the organic chicken movement began gaining steam, first with small farmers and processors, then eventually among a number of larger firms. Free-range chicken farming started taking hold about that time as well.

By the 1990's, organic, all-natural and free-range chickens were marketed by numerous companies and offered for sale by many supermarkets in the U.S. The trend has grown by double-digits each year since the early 1990's. Today, even middle-range supermarkets generally sell at least one brand of organic chicken. Further, most upscale grocers and natural foods stores sell organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-range chickens in their stores.

We see the trend towards more grocers selling air-chilled birds increasing. These chickens will be raised the traditional way but air-chilled rather than ice water-cooled.

We also see marketers who sell the no-drug, no-hormone, organic, free-range birds adding air-chilled to those birds' pedigree. It will be another selling (and perhaps food safety and flavor) point, along with the other attributes listed above. The latter is the emerging trend we are seeing at Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, Andronicos, Wegmans and others.

The state of the bird: The current U.S. fresh chicken market

Organic, free-range and air-chilled chickens currently only comprise about 1% of the total fresh chicken market in the U.S. The remaining 99% is comprised of traditionally-raised and processed--including ice water bathed--birds. However, within that majority, there is a growing trend towards chickens raised without the use of antibiotics and hormones.

There's also a trend among U.S. consumers to buy traditionally raised chickens that have no water or other broths added. Some marketers do this as a way to add volume to the bird. It's a completely separate process from the bacteria-killing bathing or air-chilling.

The USDA allows companies to add a certain percentage of water, broth and even seaweed extracts to fresh poultry and still call the chicken "all natural." Essentially, this practice, which we call "juicing," allows poultry firms to get more bang (profit) for the bird. It serves no needed food safety or other purpose.

A group of U.S. poultry companies, which don't add any liquids to their respective chickens, is currently lobbying the U.S. Congress to change this law so that companies who add the water and other liquids to the birds will no longer be able to use the term "all natural" on the "juiced" chickens' labels. The California Poultry Federation, which is leading the campaign, says its fine for the companies to add water, broths and seaweed extract to the birds if they choose to. However, they shouldn't be able to label the "unnatural" birds "all natural," the group is arguing. [You can read a piece we wrote on January 22, 'Juiced Chickens That Wear an All Natural label,' here.]

Whole Foods' in Northern California says its seeing growing popularity among shoppers for the air-chilled chickens in its stores where the grocer has thus far introduced the birds. The air-chilled chickens were just introduced in February, and the supernatural grocer says it is already seeing about a 15% increase in sales over the previous month, as customers learn more about the air-chilled process. Of course, there is the "newness factor" as well,which we expect accounts for some of that sales gain. Air-chilled just sounds better, healthier and tastier than water-cooled, don't you think?

We suspect air-chilled chicken will remain a niche--likely a smaller one than organic and perhaps even smaller than free-range. However, many chefs in Western Europe and increasingly in the U.S., use the air-chilled chickens as much as they can, primarily because they argue the birds' skin roasts to a nicer crispness and color and that the chicken itself tastes better than the traditional water-bathed birds do.

Whether these chefs could really tell the taste differences between the two--air-chilled vs., water-cooled-- in a blind tasting we don't know. However, we do believe if celebrity chefs such as those on the Food Network and elsewhere start talking up air-chilled birds, we will see a rapid increase in the sales of the chickens, and perhaps even the start of a faster-growing fresh chicken niche marketing trend.


braingirl said...

I'm not sure the avialability is as dire as it seems. At least, here in the midwest, Trader Joe's carries the Smart Chicken air-chilled birds and Marsh Supermarkets which is a major Indiana-based chain. (Bell and Evans brand.) (Hat tip to my own readers who pointed this out.) Love your blog.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo said...

Thanks for the comment--and for adding to the knowledge base. Of course, with a name like 'Braingirl,' we would expect lots of frequent adding to the knowledge posts from you:)

And see, we just wrote the piece yesterday, and the trend is already spreading...teasing of course.

Hope to hear from you more often. We are familiar with Marsh Supermarkets...Good to know they have the birds as well.

Great blog by the way!

Best Regards