The Chicken Leg Trade


by Zoe Pollock

Nadia Arumugam charts the odd machinations of America's obsession with white meat:

Once Americans signaled a clear preference for breast meat in the '60s and '70s, producers needed an outlet for the dark meat that wasn't selling domestically. They knew that foreign markets, notably in Asia, prized the moist, succulent, and richly flavored leg meat. (In Asia, it's the breasts that end up in bargain buckets.) And so they worked to convert a domestic waste product into a profitable export.

American chicken legs were purchased eagerly by Asian importers, and for a while a happy equilibrium was struck. Yet in the 1980s chicken consumption in the United States. increased at a phenomenal rate (in 1970 the average American was consuming 36 pounds of chicken; by 1985 this increased to 51 pounds), and the poultry industry needed new outlets to absorb the growing numbers of discarded legs.

It was most fortuitous, then, that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, resulting in the relaxation of trade restrictions that had hindered commerce with the formerly Communist state. U.S. chicken exporters, eager to exploit this fresh market, were able to underprice virtually all other animal protein produced in Russia, and American dark meat flooded the country. The chicken legs became so popular that locals endearingly nicknamed them "Bush legs," after President Bush Sr.

(Photo by Flickr user Kevin Bluer)