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With March Madness canceled, food industry is overloaded with chicken wings

By
Jessie Higgins
Demand for chicken wings has plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic with the closure of bars and restaurants and the cancelation of the NCAA basketball tournaments. File Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/UPI
Demand for chicken wings has plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic with the closure of bars and restaurants and the cancelation of the NCAA basketball tournaments. File Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/UPI | License Photo

EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 2 (UPI) -- With March Madness canceled and restaurants across the country closed, the meat industry is overloaded with chicken wings it can't sell.

"The wing business is totally in the gutter," said Stan Neva, the owner of the Northwest Meat Co. in Chicago, which supplies meat to restaurants, hotels and clubs.

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"The only way we're selling wings is for curbside to-go. We have one pizza place in town that does carry-out and ordered some wings. But that's been it. We probably lost 30 or 40 sports bars," Neva said.

Most chicken wings in the United States are eaten at restaurants and bars, said Russ Whitman, senior vice president at Urner Barry, a commodities market reporting firm in Toms River, N.J.

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Demand for wings tends to surge during major sporting events, like the Super Bowl and March Madness, when fans head to sports bars to watch the games.

In the weeks leading up to the NCAA basketball tournaments, which were to run through the national championship Sunday for women and Monday for men, suppliers and restaurants were stocking up, Whitman said.

Then in early March, the coronavirus pandemic started becoming a serious concern in the United States. Governments and individuals acted quickly to slow its spread.

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The NCAA announced March 12 it was cancelling its iconic men's and women's basketball tournaments. Around the same time, governors in several states started to force restaurants to close dining areas.

Suddenly, America's food service industry all but shut down.

Consumers across the country swarmed grocery stores instead, buying up staple products like bread, eggs, meat and potatoes to eat at home.

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With some store shelves depleted, the food industry is attempting to redirect food items normally bound for restaurants to the supermarkets. That includes wings.

"There were a ton of wings for March Madness," a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman said. "Suppliers stocked a lot of wings, and since there was no March Madness, they're trying to push them to retail."

But selling restaurant wings at the grocery store is not as straightforward as it seems, Whitman said. For one, food service providers are set up to process and package wings in large volumes, and they're not always able to repackage them to be retail-friendly.

"When you sell to food service, it's in a big bulk container," Whitman said. "When you selling it to me and you, it has to be in a tray or a bag that we can pick up. Not all facilities can do that."

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What's more, although retail demand for chicken has spiked, consumers are more interested in breast meat, legs and whole birds.

"A couple of weeks ago, retailers would buy up nearly anything that showed up as long as it was in a bag. The consumer would buy it," Whitman said. "That's not the case today. There is no demand for wings. The demand is gone."

This leaves suppliers with an uncomfortable decision. They can freeze their wings and wait for demand at eateries to return. But that costs money.

Or, they can cut their losses and throw them out.

Whitman said that it's possible prices will fall low enough for wings to start selling again. The price for wings has fallen considerably. On March 1, they were selling for $1.60 per pound wholesale. On Wednesday afternoon, the price was $1.25, he said.

Usually, when the price falls enough, someone will buy them, Whitman said.

"But, the thing is, nobody in the world has ever experienced what we're going through before," he said. "So we can't really say what will happen."

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