Chicken strip servings at restaurants and foodservice outlets jumped by 16% in the quarter ended September 2018 versus the same period in 2017, while chicken nuggets dropped by 3% during that time, according to The NPD Group.
The New York-based market research company said the reason for the decline wasn't because chicken nugget fans have been choosing strips. Instead, it's because the two items appeal to different types of consumers and product innovation has been occurring in strips, benefiting quick-service and fast casual restaurants that are built around the concept.
Despite the decline in chicken nugget servings, 2.3 billion of them were ordered in the year ended September 2018 compared to 1.5 billion orders of chicken strips, The NPD Group said.
Although The NPD Group focused on varying consumer tastes and product innovation as the reasons why chicken nugget servings have declined, CNBC suggested health concerns, media attention and new competition might be to blame. The business channel said it polled consumers in New York's Times Square, and "no one knew exactly what is in a chicken nugget."
A large chicken nugget recall last month by Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Pilgrim's Pride probably didn't help. Nuggets under the Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride brands were contaminated with rubber, while Perdue's did not have milk declared on the labels.
There also are questions about where chicken nuggets can go in terms of line extensions. Beyond new flavors or small changes in shape, chicken nuggets are considered a staple of food consumption in America, leaving little room for innovation.
As consumers have flocked toward fresher items in the foods they consume, chicken has been no exception. Sales of frozen chicken wings fell 7.9% to $432 million for the year ended January 5 compared to the prior period while sales of deli-cooked chicken wings rose 15% to $650 million during the same time, according to Nielsen. At the same time, raw, fresh meat wing sales jumped 31.4% to $179 million.
Chicken strips are popular because they are widely available and viewed as a healthier and a more adult version of nuggets, CNBC said. In addition, consumers will pay more for them, so they provide a higher profit margin for restaurants.
Chicken nuggets have a lot going for them — established popularity, convenience, ease of preparation, taste, flavor and cost — so manufacturers might be able to break out the box by coming up with interesting new flavors, healthier varieties or lifting the curtain on what the food is made out of.
Perdue has introduced a fully cooked "fun shapes" chicken nugget line offering antibiotic-free, white-meat chicken in dinosaur shapes. Tyson makes frozen "fun nuggets" in dinosaur shapes, as well as nuggets labeled "premium" and "all natural." The Arkansas meat giant also produces frozen gluten-free, white-meat chicken nuggets with a rice flour-based breading. Even tiny FoodStory Brands has licensed the right to make Jurassic World Chicken Nuggets with all white meat, no antibiotics and whole grain breading.
Besides these innovations, emphasizing the convenience and cost of nuggets compared to other chicken products might help improve their image and increase consumption. Marketing them as an easy-to-prepare meal providing significant protein could be another route for manufacturers and retailers. The chicken nugget's role in American food consumption shows no sign of going away, but it's clear that consumers now have other choices they are more willing to consider when having poultry.