Chicken has a dominant place in the U.S. market. Thanks to low prices compared to beef or pork, it is consistently selected as a meal entrée.
The one area where chicken loses to other proteins is in terms of “premium.” A high-end steak or chop is appreciated for its taste, and certain breeds — Angus in beef and Berkshire in pork, for example — are valued for the quality of the eating experience. When it comes to chicken, though, most of the taste is dependent on the cooking method or the type of marinade or sauce used on the meat.
That may be changing, as companies are touting the taste of their chicken as a point of differentiation with their competition. They are working to make more consumers are aware of the attributes that make their products stand out — use of antibiotics, diet, processing methods. The hope is that, when consumers think about chicken, they think “premium.”
Emmer & Co., based in Red Bluff, Calif., is one of those companies hoping to make chicken a high-end protein. Jesse Solomon, CEO, points to countries like France where it’s already the case.
“We’ve seen estimates that the country’s official pasture-raised label, Label Rouge, represents around 30% of the entire French chicken market,” he explains. “Pasture raised chicken in the U.S., however, still represents a very small percentage of the overall market; most consumers don’t have access to it.”
Emmer & Co. utilizes slow-growth breeds of chickens, which can take twice as long to grow out as the Cornish Cross birds. The birds are 100-percent pasture-raised and fed a diet of non-GMO feed, as well as whatever they forage.
The taste of a pasture-raised chicken, Solomon says, has a rich, delicious flavor that is tender yet meaty. Customers from other countries often say that Emmer & Co. chicken tastes like the chicken they remember from home, and chefs love to work with it. Consumer response is quite favorable; the challenge comes from getting the chicken out to more people.
“Availability is critical: we don’t want to see this just be a boutique, niche product,” Solomon says. “The more companies like ours can grow and achieve economies of scale, the more we’re able to reduce our price in the market. That allows us to make our chickens widely available to consumers across the country.”
Emmer & Co. currently works with a farmer in northern California and a USDA-certified processor. The company recently expanded its distribution to the Los Angeles area, and the response has been so strong that it sells out its weekly production. Its current goals are to increase that production, but Solomon has a longer-term goal that would revolutionize the poultry industry and make pasture-raised chicken a viable alternative for consumers. Solomon points to agricultural companies like Organic Valley, as well as non-food companies like Patagonia, as examples of businesses whose practices he emulates.
“Our vision is one in which the farmers are fully integrated into Emmer & Co., with a full-time employment relationship that includes benefits and profit sharing,” he says.
That type of approach would bring more producers into the pasture-raised growing method, which increases the availability of raw materials for Emmer & Co. and companies like it. In turn, that availability allows all the companies to lower their prices and make pasture-raised chicken a more cost-effective option for consumers. As it stands now, Emmer & Co.’s chicken is just slightly higher than the typical retail organic chicken products.
“As we’re able to reduce our price over time, we look forward to being able to offer pastured poultry to more customers nationwide,” he says.