Are Chicken Prices Unreasonably High? A Cautionary Tale
Updated: Jan 7
There has been an uproar about chicken pricing due to a twitter post by a CTV News Reporter. In the post she has a photograph of a package of 5 boneless skinless chicken breasts that are priced at $37.03. She captions the picture with "I beg your pardon." The post has over 4.2 million views and has been discussed on numerous different news channels. I've done six interviews in the past 36 hours with people aghast about the unfairly priced chicken and ready to tar and feather Galen Weston for unreasonably high prices. The truth, however, was a little bit more complicated.
The reporter sent an inquiry to a colleague of mine who forwarded it to me. My first inclination was that an employee at the store had priced or labelled it incorrectly. It could also have been the result of a short term shortage at the store but grocers rarely increase prices if inventories are low - they often give customers rain checks if they are out. I then wondered if there was a broader short term shortage. Lettuce was in short supply (and expensive) in early December 2022 due to short term weather and disease issues. There was even a shortage of fresh turkey in BC before Christmas due to avian influenza. I didn't think that was an issue as I hadn't heard anything.
In the end I looked closely at the photo and saw the letters "FF" on the price tag in the product description. In the end what I decided happened (later confirmed by Loblaws to the reporter) was that it was Free From chicken which sells at a premium. It appears that the label for free from was not applied as it was on the package that I saw when I went to my local store. Without the additional label it appears to be regular chicken and the price might seem high. For the premium product it is the regular price and people still have the option to buy much cheaper chicken. When I took the picture, I bought a $12 bone in and skin on rotisserie chicken for $12.
There are some lessons to be learned from this event.
1 - The Current Sensitivity to Food Prices
There has been significant price inflation over the past year. There are many reasons. We pay retailers for our food so are inclined to blame them for price increases. I would argue that that is likely not the source of price inflation. Regardless of the causes of food price inflation, Canadians are looking for someone to blame and have their sites set on retailers. The viral tweet shows just how sensitive we are to high prices, whether accurately reflected or not.
"The viral tweet shows just how sensitive we are to high prices, whether accurately reflected or not."
2 - The Power of Social Media
A quick and off the cuff tweet by a reporter generated mass outrage and 4.2 million views (up until now). She wasn't looking for a story and didn't expect it to be one. It became one because of the outrage on social media. It highlights how an innocuous post without claims (never mind purposeful misinformation) can be fanned into a raging fire with little support.
3 - Is Chicken Too Expensive?
Food prices have gone up. It has put pressure on Canadians, particularly those on pensions, social assistance or the working poor. I don't mean to diminish the hardship that rising prices have caused. Chicken is more expensive than it used to be. According to statistics Canada, fresh or frozen chicken was 9.3% more expensive in November 2022 than it was in November 2021. This is below the average rate of food price inflation. Chicken prices were actually down 1.3% in November as compared to October.
4 - Why is Some Chicken So Much More Expensive?
There are a variety of characteristics that chicken can have that makes it more expensive. Chicken Farmers of Canada has done a good job of highlighting some of them. In the case of free from chicken the difference is two main things.
The first is that these chickens are raised without the use of antibiotics. If a flock gets sick, these birds are still treated by they are diverted to the non free from market (not treating sick birds would be an animal welfare issue). This approach costs more money. The "free from" name is actually somewhat misleading as regular chicken is also free from antibiotics. Antibiotics are regulated and approved by the federal government and require a withdrawal period after use so that the bird has the chance to metabolize or pass the antibiotic compound. All chicken is virtually free from antibiotics. This particular chicken is raised without the use of antibiotics. That is an important distinction.
The second is that these birds are fed a completely plant based diet. The vast majority of all chicken feed is plant based. Sometimes animal byproducts (meat meal or fish meal) are used to supplement protein which makes the ration cheaper (and reduces the cost of the chicken). The amounts are very small but if you choose to do an entirely plant based diet you raise costs which is why these products cost more money.
You will also note on the label that this chicken is raised without the use of hormones. They were forced to add (on the next line) that all chickens are raised without the use of supplemental hormones. Hormone use simply doesn't happen in chicken production. It is one of the most common misconceptions in agriculture.
Other factors such as organic can also raise prices. All chickens are fed a diet that is predominantly grain so grain fed is usually just a marketing push. I would also highlight that there are cheaper ways to buy chicken. Thighs (my preference anyway) are cheaper than breasts usually. You can get chicken that is not deboned or skinned cheaper than boneless skinless. You can even buy a seasoned and cooked rotisserie chicken for $12 (at my local store).
It is amazing how quickly this exploded into a big issue. It highlights a couple of key things:
People are feeling higher food prices and are quick to get angry and point fingers when they perceive that the prices are higher than justified.
Social media can take an issue and make it huge with or without clarification as to whether the issue is real or not (a staffer simply forgot to put a free from label on the package - it was otherwise labelled correctly.
You can still buy cheaper chicken. As always, pay attention to the label and buy what makes sense for you.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "Are Chicken Prices Unreasonably High? A Cautionary Tale". Food Focus Guelph (131), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, January 6, 2023.