Surplus of chicken wings follows March Madness cancellation

The meat market just missed another holiday: March Madness.

Sports fans normally flock to chicken wings during the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but the event was canceled this year because of the novel coronavirus.

The meat market just missed another holiday: March Madness.

The NCAA basketball tournament is the second of two annual festivals for chicken wings (the first is the Super Bowl). Wing prices and production run in predictable cycles each year ramping up for the NFL playoffs and championship game in the beginning of February, then again for college basketball’s frenzied tournament a month and a half later.

American consumers have relatively predictable patterns when it comes to meat consumption. They buy more in the spring and summer, experts observe, so they can grill or entertain, or while they’re away on vacation. Certain types of meats peak at different time of year: think turkey on Thanksgiving or ham for Christmas.

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But with the country locked down because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the NCAA tournament canceled, a whole bunch of wings are lying around, and now they’ve flooded the market.

“That is fact,” said Will Sawyer, lead animal protein economist at CoBank. “That is real.”

Wings, the most expensive part of the bird, haven’t been this cheap since September 2011, according to Agriculture Department data. They sold for close to $2 per pound the weekend of the Super Bowl. Now, they sell for just over half of that: $1.09 per pound.

Poultry producers sold 1.24 million pounds of wings the week the tournament was scheduled to start. Last week, they sold barely 433,000 pounds.

“Those are millions of pounds of wings that people don’t eat,” said Erik Oosterwijk, president of Fells Point Wholesale Meats in Baltimore. “And if [coronavirus] happened in January and February, it would have been the Super Bowl that got hit. There’s no doubt there’s a lot of food out there today.”

“The major wing chains that should be hot this time of year are closed,” Sawyer added. “The food service side of things, they probably still have wings they bought weeks ago getting ready for March Madness and for people to come watch the games, but they’re not selling them.”

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So how’d all this happen?

Selling chicken isn’t like selling any other commodity, experts say. The supply chain that connects farmers to meatpackers to restaurants or consumers is governed by biology, in addition to consumer demand. A hen lays an egg and the countdown clock begins. There’s only so much time before a chick emerges, then grows into a bird ready for harvest.

The whole process takes close to 10 weeks, Oosterwijk said. Processors can’t let chickens grow much bigger, because then they’re too large to harvest efficiently. Meanwhile, hens keep laying eggs.

Public health orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, came so quickly, that consumers flocked to stores and filled their carts with protein. Chicken saw a 35% bump in demand, said Sawyer. But with restaurants shuttered save for carryout orders, people are mainly eating out of their refrigerators now instead of dining out. And most consumers don’t cook wings; they cook healthier and meatier cuts such as breasts, tenderloins and legs.

All that means a few things:

– The restaurants that would serve wings aren’t doing as much business.

– They’re not placing orders for wings from vendors, even though vendors’ supplies keep growing.

– The small share of wings sold at grocery stores are sitting on the shelves, or are being purchased as a meat of last resort.

“All the stocking up the consumers did in March, that’s over,” Sawyer said, “and prices for the industry are at or even a little below break-even.”

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Because a basketball tournament got called off.

“The basketball, it’s for real,” Oosterwijk said. “The basketball didn’t happen. People are not going to restaurants and there’s a lot of excess.”

The chicken industryoptions to control supply, Sawyer said, but none that can snap into place fast enough to keep pace with volatile demand. Producers can cull the number of eggs they allow to hatch, in essence destroying inventory before it reaches the market, or they can feed the chickens less food so they grow at a slower pace.

They can also close processing and packing plants, which serves the dual purpose of keeping workers safe at home and reducing supply.

Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, wrote in an email that suppliers were also trying to divert food, including wings, from restaurants to grocers. Other wings will be frozen.

Oosterwijk said he expects those items to be back on the market in around six months, just in time for the middle of football season.

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