When it comes to certain packaged chicken parts, folks, you're no longer seeing double: In major supermarket chains across the country, polystyrene trays that once held two pairs (that's four halves) of fresh, whole, boneless, skinless chicken breasts now offer three hefty lobes instead.
If you were a suspicious consumer, you might think this is a marketing strategy to prompt the purchase of a second package. After all, not many recipes call for a trio of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (we'll call them BSCBs), a cut that was designed for your convenience. But how handy are the packs of three when you need to pick up two or four? Why, it's forcing some of us to stop and think, and plan, and eat that extra one when we shouldn't, and buy in bulk and reach for plastic freezer bags -- which are mostly smart things to do, but not so convenient, eh?
It's clear that home cooks appreciate easy chicken. A National Chicken Council (NCC) survey says that 65 percent of us bought packaged BSCBs last year, while about 30 percent of us bought packs of bone-in chicken breasts, even though the latter cost less and don't take too much effort to reduce to a boneless, skinless state. At Giant Food stores in the Washington area, BSCBs account for 48 to 58 percent of total poultry sales.
We can report the lack of a retail-sales conspiracy with some sincerity, because poultry experts can provide logical explanations for the BSCB trios.
It starts with the fact that a lot of chickens, not all, are raised to be bigger, according to Bill Roenigk of the NCC, and are being raised to yield more breast meat as well. The average live weight (a standard measure used by the USDA) of a chicken known as a deboning broiler was 4.1 pounds in 1984; in January of this year, it was 5.3 pounds. Deboning broilers can weigh up to 7.5 or eight pounds, though. In 1934, the first year those stats were compiled, the average weight was 3.6 pounds. Twenty-four years ago, the so-called yield of breast meat was about 36 percent of a retail chicken's total carcass weight; today, it accounts for 40 percent. And keep in mind that fewer, bigger chickens are more profitable for retail chicken producers.
While there are at least 10 industry classifications of chicken (for example, roasters, stewing hens), Roenigk says that in the past few years, a larger percentage of meat from the larger deboning birds, normally used to make nuggets, patties and strips, has made it through to your retail poultry section in the form of BSCBs, sold in trays about measuring 8 by 6 inches. The whole and cut-up chicken sold at grocery stores has gotten bigger too, Roenigk confirms. You can bet that greater yield means larger portions: Average BSCB halves, with tenderloins attached, from retail-size birds, used to weigh four ounces each in 1980. Now they are about 5.25 ounces per lobe.
So retailers have responded by trying to maintain the package weight of BSCBs, which usually hovers between 1.5 and 1.8 pounds. They pack BSCBs this way because it keeps the trays tidy in the meat case -- no overstuffed, fleshy globs straining at the plastic shrink wrap around them -- and keeps per-package prices from climbing over $10. Roenigk says consumers also have made known their preference for a pack in that size and price range.
Something had to give. Ergo, the threesome.
But consumers are also clucking about BSCBs that are getting too big and too tough, which brings us 'round to thoughts of marketing manipulation. The industry has answered -- Perdue was the first to do so -- with trays of 1/2-inch or 5/8-inch sliced BSCB cutlets that usually weigh less than a pound but cost more per pound than unsliced BSCBs (see sidebar.)
That preparation of chicken works great for some recipes, but not for those cooks who want to serve the natural curve of a BSCB per person, like in the good old days. They have to buy not only from smaller producers, but from producers of smaller chickens such as Bell & Evans or at slightly smaller grocery store chains like Wegmans, whose store brand also offers a BSCB with modest cleavage.
Bell & Evans produces an "all-natural" bird that's not getting bigger, says spokesman Tom Stone, although the average live weight of his company's chickens currently falls in the five-pound range. So Whole Foods Markets, which carry B&E poultry in the Washington area, package their BSCBs with a target of two whole breasts -- butterflied, so that the lobes are still attached in the middle and resemble believable chicken parts -- and a price tag between $10-$11. Whole Foods meat and poultry coordinator Theo Weening promises that even in the store's larger family packs, BSCBs will remain in pairs.
Perhaps changes in the marketing of BSCBs seem less daunting to the up-and-coming generation of home cooks. In the checkout line ahead of me at Whole Foods last week, a twentysomething in a hurry plunked down a couple of vegetables and a slim, .82-pound pack of Bell & Evans Thin-Sliced Boneless & Skinless Chicken Breast Cutlets, priced at $6.99 per pound. She'd been "buying them forever," she said; yes, my tray of BSCBs was $1 less per pound, but it was way too much meat for her, and she didn't mind paying even more for the convenience. Storing and freezing? Feh.
On a positive note, consumers are now seeing more packages of BSCBs labeled with water weight information. This summer, the industry began to comply with a USDA regulation (see www.fsis.usda.gov/ regulations_&_policies/New_ Technologies/ index.asp) that was created in 2001 to increase food safety in raw, single-ingredient whole, ground or cut-up meat or poultry (by reducing the chance for salmonella in the liquid). Faced with package claims of "Less Than One Percent Water Retained," you can take comfort in knowing that the amount of BSCBs you're buying is, at least, all it can be.