BROADWAY, VA. -- It is a mere ripple in the sea of international trade, but the high value of Japan's yen enables Asian consumers to eat millions of Virginia chicken feet that otherwise would be fed to the next generation of chickens.
"Ours have a little price advantage, where the yen value is at," said Henry Holler, vice president of marketing and sales for Rockingham Poultry Marketing Cooperative Inc., which cracked the Hong Kong and Singapore markets for chicken feet a year ago. "When the yen gets weaker, that would have a direct effect on us."
Japan has been the main seller of chicken feet to Hong Kong for years, and the yen's strength relative to the dollar permits Rockingham to peddle the feet at a competitive price, even after freezing them and shipping them around the world, Holler said.
He declined to quote the price Rockingham gets for its chicken feet. But he added up the numbers of chicken feet being exported. "Right now, we're selling 22 and a half metric tons per month," he said. "Just to give you an idea, a chicken foot will weigh in right at an ounce. It takes eight chickens per pound because they've got two feet."
He punched a few numbers and came up with 400,000 chicken feet per month, give or take a couple.
Traditionally in the United States, the feet of slaughtered chickens combined with other spare parts, such as feathers, and blended in with meal that is fed to chickens.
A few years ago, Holler noticed that the "wet markets" of Hong Kong featured chicken feet along with other exotic meat products. The markets are called "wet" because they lack refrigeration and proprietors use water to keep their foods cool, Holler said.
"You can buy most any kind of meat in the wet markets, and that's where most of the market is," he said.
Holler learned that Chinese eat spiced chicken feet as hors d'oeuvres.
"It's cooked. It's marinated. I don't think it's deep fried, but it's crunchy when you bite into it," he said.
He wondered why U.S. poultry producers couldn't ship chicken feet to Hong Kong instead of using them in the chicken feed. He found out: Machines, called "pickers," that pluck feathers off U.S. chickens in processing plants tend to break the feet and chip the leg bones, making the foot too messy for the Chinese consumer.
"They don't want the bone shattered," Holler said. "The high-speed pickers tend to break the feet, because they're brittle."
Holler began searching for a better way to remove foot from chicken. He found one.
"We cut them off at the knuckle, so there's no shattering process," he said. "We have come up with a piece of equipment that will do this."
Rockingham is trying to keep its method a secret.
"We don't even let anybody in the plant," Holler said. The chicken feet are gathered at Rockingham's plant in Stanley.
The cooperative's two other plants, in Broadway, and Moorefield, W.Va., could adopt the process in the future, but there are no plans for that yet, he said. The equipment in Stanley cost more than $100,000, Holler said, and although it has not paid for itself in the first year, it eventually will.endqua