KANSAS CITY, MO. – At the height of the coronavirus, demand for chicken, particularly at retail, was very strong. For example, retail sales were up about 35% on average over the last three months compared to the same timeframe last year.

“It seems that anything labeled ‘chicken’ is selling well at the grocery store,” said Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, Washington, DC. “Your typical mainstays like boneless/skinless breasts and tenders, but we’re also seeing more wings and whole birds being offered in the meat case.” 

Strong retail sales, however, don’t make up for the loss of foodservice demand, which is typically about 50% of the industry’s portfolio. 

“Hopefully in the next three months we will see a gradual reopening of the foodservice industry beyond just take-out,” Super said.

Oakwood, Ga.-based Wayne Farms, like many producers, reported wide swings in demand during the coronavirus outbreak. At one point, restaurant and other foodservice demand was down 40%, said Megan Ernst, the company’s senior brand manager.

At the same time, however, grocery store sales spiked.

By May, foodservice was starting to come back, and Wayne Farms was looking forward to smoother sailing ahead.

“Continued demand for poultry at wholesale and retail will drive business for the few months at least, probably until restaurant and foodservice demand return to historic levels,” Ernst said.

During the outbreak, Wayne Farms has seen stronger demand for bigger retail chicken packs.

“With consumers cooking and eating more at home and making fewer grocery shopping trips, consumers are seeking larger package sizes of chicken,” she said. “Larger package sizes provide more volume for increased at-home meals and limits grocery trips, since consumers have enough to freeze for later or to carry them through until they shop again.”

Experimentation, convenience trending

Also trending is consumers’ willingness to try new brands. As product availability varies and consumers are seeing more empty shelves than they're used to, Wayne Farms is seeing a willingness to try new chicken brands and products.

Convenience is also on the rise. With all of the social distancing and at-home cooking, Wayne Farms is seeing more interest in fully cooked, easy-to-prep, better-for-you chicken products to help take some of the heavy lifting off the at-home cook — while still providing a healthy protein option to feed the whole family. 

Ernst characterizes Wayne Farms as a “market-driven company.” In practice, that means offering choice and products that meet a variety of needs.

At the end of 2017, the company introduced its Naked Truth Premium Chicken for retailers and customers who wanted verified proof of animal care practices. Naked Truth is Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Step 2 rated for animal care and carries many attractive attributes for time-constrained consumers who are also focused on health and wellness.

Those include vegetable and grain-based diet (no animal by products), all-natural, no artificial ingredients or preservatives, and antibiotics are never, ever used throughout the process.

“We introduced a line of unique, fully-cooked, easy-to-finish products, for the frozen meat case, and continue to receive positive feedback on the offerings,” Ernst said.

Wayne Farms also has plans to launch new, chef-inspired offerings that focus on the home cook later in 2020. Watch for news on these new products, coming this fall.

Also new at Wayne Farms, earlier this year the company launched an enhanced, customer-friendly website in January at IPPE in Atlanta.

“Not only will customers find more and detailed information about our brands, they'll also find a blog, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at our practices. We've received a lot of positive feedback from customers about it.”

A focus on safety

The number one focus for poultry producers right now has been increasing efforts to keep workers safe in the processing plant, Super said.

“In response to COVID-19, each chicken company has added additional protective measures to help keep employees safe and healthy,” he said. “Companies are following all of the CDC and local health department guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans.”

Additional measures include:

  • Increasing cleaning and sanitation frequencies and intensities for equipment and common areas, such as the breakroom and vending machines, at processing facilities
  •  Increase frequency of handwashing/sanitation for employees and increased access to hand sanitizing stations
  • Encouraging employees to stay home if they are not feeling well or believe they may have been exposed to the virus, while still receiving pay and no attendance penalty
  • Heightening employee screening for any signs of illness, including temperature checks before entering the plant
  • Practicing social distancing not only in common areas, such as break rooms and cafeterias, but also on production lines where possible
  • Implementing travel restrictions and only allowing essential personnel into the plant
  • Educating employees about the virus and ways to avoid catching it, and posting educational information in a variety of languages
  • Training company nurses on CDC protocols for COVID-19
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, and permitting employees to bring their own PPE
  • Installing plastic dividers between workstations and in breakrooms

NCC, meanwhile, is assisting its members by advocating for tax relief for frontline workers and seeking direct federal assistance for chicken farmers displaced by COVID.