WASHINGTON – After a slow start to the outdoor grilling season, demand for chicken is building as higher prices for beef and pork make retail and foodservice promotions featuring chicken more likely, according to the May 20 edition of the National Chicken Council’s Washington Report. Top executives of chicken companies expressed these opinions during an investment conference last week.

“We are happy with the improvement in demand we’ve seen following a cold, wet April,” said Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods at the BMO Capital Markets 2011 Farm to Market Conference in New York. Because beef and pork pricing are strong, many retailers and foodservice operators are likely to feature chicken this summer, he added. Chicken prices remain soft considering the time of year, Smith said. So far this spring, protein demand has suffered due in part to bad weather that offered few opportunities for outdoor grilling, analysts stated.

The US restaurant trade continues to struggle with weak demand linked to high unemployment, other executives said. “We saw very little demand” connected to dining out on Mother’s Day, said Joe Sanderson Jr., chairman and CEO of Sanderson Farms. Beef, pork and poultry have all underperformed, added Bill Lovette, president and CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride. “Consumers are not as willing to spend as much money on total protein as we expected them to,” he added.

Export markets are easing this situation, said Noel White, senior group vice president of Tyson Fresh Meats. “Exports, along with production efficiencies and value-added programs, are driving our earnings,” White said.

White added he does not see major changes in the solid fundamentals of beef and pork. “The outlook is bright,” he concluded.