Does the quality of chicken breasts vary?
September 1, 2011 7:31 PM   Subscribe

My local Vons (basically, Safeway on the west coast) sells Foster Farms chicken breasts for around $10/pound. At the fresh fish/butcher section of the store, however, chicken breasts are $3.99/pound. When I asked one of Vons' butchers about the price difference, I was told that Foster Farms' $10 breasts are "higher quality" than Vons' $4 breasts. To the eye, they appear identical. To the tongue (I've bought and tried both) they taste identical. The whole "higher price, higher quality" dictum in strikes me as bullshit vis-a-vis chicken breasts, but I could be wrong. Thoughts?
posted by BadgerDoctor to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Chalk it up to marketing and organic/freerange whatever buzzwords.

This sucks that they can charge so much, omigodamirite.
posted by TheBones at 7:37 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not familiar with Foster Farms, but the differences between the store chicken and the fancy chickens in my local supermarkets are generally one or more of the following: organic or not, antibiotics or not, hormones or not, previously frozen or not, free range or not, and whether they've been soaked in a saline solution to plump them prior to packaging.

For the most part, the real difference is all just a matter of preference and taste. Personally, I wouldn't pay $10/lb for chicken unless someone was preparing it for me. But maybe I'm gonna have purple fur and an extra nipple in 30 years from all the artificial crap they load into my cheap chicken. If I had more money, maybe I'd be a little more choosy.
posted by phunniemee at 7:39 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Trust the tongue. You know bullshit when you taste it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:41 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I should add that you should ask for the head butcher in the meat department (not just some stocking guy) to find out the specific differences between the chicken varieties if any of the qualities I listed above matter to you. S/he will know. If you get evasive answers like "this one is 'better'," just stand your ground and be direct. Someone will be able to tell you what you want to know.
posted by phunniemee at 7:42 PM on September 1, 2011

Well, you need to get more detail. I am pretty careful with my meat selection, and there's a big difference between ordinary mass-produced factory-farm meat (chickens in terrible living conditions, meat likely to be injected with a saline solution, feed of dubious quality) and, say, farmer's market free-range chicken (chickens raised in better condition, higher-quality feed maybe supplemented with forage, no weird additives.) Whether or not these things matter to you is dependent on your priorities (budgetary and otherwise) but I can tell you that there is a major, definite flavor difference between the low end and the high end.

Which of these factors are coming into play with these specific brands, of course, needs more research. There's definitely some vanity pricing going on a lot of the time - for example, "hormone-free!" is a popular sticker but it is actually illegal to treat chickens with hormones in the US.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:43 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

My opinion: the butcher is full of sh*t. Give Foster Farms a call and ask them yourself 1-800-255-7227.
posted by Mr.Me at 7:45 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

And, I've had farmer's market, free-range Rhode Island Red heritage breed chicken. It smells awesome raw, even better when cooked, feels leaner and firmer, the flesh is yellower, and the dark meat is dark. Delicious, even if one chicken doesn't feed six like the supermarket birds do.

If you're gonna pay more for special chicken, you'll know it's special just by looking at it - it will be skinnier and yellower.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:45 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Err, the skin is yellower.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:45 PM on September 1, 2011

Oh, wait. Both aren't Foster Farms? Damn you delicious wine after dinner. There are big variations in the quality/handling of fresh poultry. Never mind.
posted by Mr.Me at 7:51 PM on September 1, 2011

The fact that you can't tell the difference doesn't mean there is no difference, but it does mean you can buy the cheaper chicken and be just as happy with it as you would be with the more expensive chicken, and that's not a bad thing.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:56 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're comparing store brand to name-brand goods. There might be a real difference, but it might be a case of price discrimination, which is so often the reason that private label goods are cheaper.
posted by grouse at 8:52 PM on September 1, 2011

$10/lb for Foster Farms chicken breast seems like too much. I can get local, organic, not-mass-market (which Foster seems to be) chicken breast for $7/lb.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:53 PM on September 1, 2011

The Fosters Farms marketing campaign was created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Here (.pdf) is how they explain:
Freshness, quality and ‘naturalness’ are considerations but price has traditionally been the number-one decision driver. The key strategic choice for Foster Farms was to make price less of a consideration for the consumer and to insist, and keep insisting over 16 years, that quality matters more.

Based on the idea of “Are you sure it’s fresh and natural if it’s not Foster Farms?”, the role for the campaign has been to play an aggressive defense against store brand, “club brand” and “no brand” chicken, sustain the premium, retain preference and be the brand most associated with freshness and naturalness....

The success of the campaign has been marked—more important, it’s been sustained:
  • Foster Farms has sustained a 25-cent premium for every pound of chicken sold (plus or minus 5 cents per market availability).
  • Foster Farms has fought off heavy competitive threats and retained preference–even as the brand expanded out of California into new markets on the West Coast.
  • As brand loyalty to Foster Farms increases, so do perceptions of fresh and natural.
One of their advertisements won an Effie Award in 2010, for keeping sales high during a recession, by bringing to light a controversy Fosters Farms call "plumping". Here's part of the blurb about the award:
Amid a recession, it was easy for Mom to trade down from the 'brand I like' to the 'just as good' private label. This is the story of how Foster Farms created a bit of controversy in the usually dull chicken category and gave moms real reasons to pick (and pay more for) Foster Farms. This effort not only shielded Foster Farms from a seemingly unavoidable decline in sales, it also created a cause that shoppers and legislators rallied behind."
Sounds a little different than what the Von's butcher relayed to you when it is presented as a marketing campaign, doesn't it?
posted by Houstonian at 9:00 PM on September 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Anecdotally, I can say that the organic chicken sold on the East Coast tastes much better than the store-brand stuff (Seriously, no comparison). There's more meat on the bone; it's usually been butchered more carefully, and for whatever reason, it always seems to cook up to be a bit juicier.

I try to buy it whenever it's reasonably affordable to do so (disclaimer: I'm cheap, and only care slightly about the organic-ness of my food; I do buy organic food somewhat frequently, although a myriad of factors usually influences that decision, rather than the simple organic/non-organic distinction)
posted by schmod at 9:04 PM on September 1, 2011

I'm on the west coast.

You can get Mary's Chicken at Whole Foods (Mary's has better farming practices) for 4.99 per lb in the bulk vacuum bag, or 7.99 per lbs organic in the bulk bag or in the butcher case - same farming practices, different feed.

I would never never never buy Foster Farms or any other factory farmed chicken. Look at their little butts on the whole chickens to see why not. See that yellowed/browned bit? That's burnt flesh because the chickens sit in their own urine. Yuck!

I've had great luck with the Trader Joe's organic chicken on the west coast - also 6.99 or 7.99 per lbs.

I'm a stickler for this. Von's and Ralph's and other major supermarkets are not even on my radar when it comes to meat.
posted by jbenben at 9:30 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the fresh fish/butcher section of the store, however, chicken breasts are $3.99/pound.

Could this just be a matter of price discrimination? I rarely cook (working on it though) and haven't been buying my own meat for most of my life. So I view the butcher section of the grocery store as a more advanced / time-consuming proposition. That's ridiculous, I realize. But as a result I'm much more likely just to pick up some pre-packaged chicken breasts without having to explain what I want at the butcher counter.
posted by mullacc at 9:32 PM on September 1, 2011

it does mean you can buy the cheaper chicken and be just as happy with it as you would be with the more expensive chicken, and that's not a bad thing.

If you're buying supermarket chicken in the US, then you're basically supporting the worst bit of domestic industrial agriculture. If you're eating high-priced supermarket chicken, you're probably still complicit but you're supporting a bunch of branding consultants' coke habits as well.
posted by holgate at 9:41 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

It took a little while, but I think this thread is coming around to the possible real reason for the price difference: how the chickens are treated. The large-scale chicken production process is revolting for the animals and ruinous for the farmers. See Food Inc. and Modern Meat. Treating them right costs more.

Note: not claiming that the higher-priced supplier here treats their chickens better
posted by intermod at 10:09 PM on September 1, 2011

$10 for Foster Farms breasts, which is more or less the same as factory-farmed no-name chicken, is an outrage. For $7-$8 lb. you can get organic at Trader Joe's, which means no confinement, no anti-biotics, and the feed is organic. It's nowhere near a guarantee of decent treatment for the chicken, but it's the best label with real teeth behind it that's available.

If all you want is chicken breast that tastes good and don't care about the source, Costco has frozen, individually wrapped breasts for $2.50/lb. in bulk. Just leave in the fridge for 24 hrs before cooking and you've got chicken breasts.
posted by wnissen at 1:52 PM on September 2, 2011

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