Evolving U.S. demographics are shifting consumer preferences from white meat chicken to dark meat. Meanwhile, advances in mechanical deboning technology allow U.S. chicken producers to capture the emerging demand for dark meat while addressing the ever-present labor shortage, according to a report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange division, Greenwood Village, Colo.

Two key and changing demographic drivers behind the slow but steady shift in U.S. demand from white chicken meat to dark meat are age and ethnicity. Millennials are projected to surpass Baby Boomers in 2019 as the largest living adult generation in the United States. As Baby Boomers age, their consumption of meat, including white chicken meat, is declining. Meanwhile, Millennials are now hitting their stride in income, spending power and meat consumption. That’s because their generation grew up with international dining options that often feature dark meat as the chicken ingredient of choice.

Latino and Asian populations are also growing in the United States, and dark meat chicken is typically used in the cuisines of their cultures. As these populations continue to grow, so too will the demand for dark meat chicken.

“The shifting consumer demand is driving a corresponding increase in the value of dark meat and the decline in white meat value,” says Will Sawyer, animal protein economist. “Since 2000, chicken breast’s share of the value of the bird has dropped from 66% to just 45%, while the value of chicken legs has increased dark meat’s share from 12% to near 30%.”

Furthermore, advances in whole leg deboning technology continue to improve yields with half of the labor required of hand deboning. In the face of increasing labor costs and decreasing availability of labor, mechanical alternatives are now financially viable. Chicken processing costs grew approximately 15% in the last decade, and continue to grow, largely driven by labor costs that typically account for half the total processing cost. As a result, adoption of this new technology is likely to expand further.

“These trends are helping dark meat grow as an additional profit center for U.S. producers,” says Sawyer. “A more diversified profit pool, including both white and dark meat, will help the U.S. chicken industry weather volatility in feed costs, consumer demand and trade.”