The restaurant business continues to struggle with flat demand related to the high level of unemployment in the country, Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer of Sanderson Farms, Laurel, Mississippi, told food writers and editors at the NCC-USPOULTRY Food Media Seminar in Charleston, South Carolina, this week.  “A lot of people need to get their jobs back” before the foodservice business returns to normal, he said.

Butts participated in a chief executives’ panel with Mark Hickman, president and CEO, Peco Foods, Inc., Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Jim Perdue, chairman of the board, Perdue Farms Incorporated, Salisbury, Maryland; and Donnie Smith, president and CEO, Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Arkansas, moderated by Bernard Leonard of Tyson Foods, NCC Chairman.  Writers attending the seminar say it is the only event of its kind in which they have the opportunity to question several of the top executives in a food industry.

Asked about the pork industry’s new “Be Inspired” advertising campaign, Hickman noted that it is aimed at core users of pork and is unlikely to raise overall demand for pork.  He said that while there is no generic chicken campaign, the companies spend nearly $90 million a year on advertising, comparing favorably to other species.

Perdue said that the chicken industry’s customers expect to see their chicken suppliers practice sustainability, leading to a strong emphasis on recycling, production of energy from biomass, and other environmentally sensitive practices.  Proper treatment of employees is also a part of sustainability, as is animal welfare, he said.

Smith expressed optimism about the outlook for chicken, saying it will remain the leading protein because it is the “most efficient converter of feed grains into protein.”  He urged the writers to pay more attention to dark meat.

Members of the panel acknowledged the perennially expressed concern of the writers about large portion sizes, with Perdue agreeing that “we need to cut larger birds into manageable sizes.”  Smith said smaller birds actually cost more to produce per unit.

Asked about concerns over microbial contamination of raw chicken, Hickman said it is still important for consumers to follow safe handling instructions even though Salmonella counts on raw birds have come down.

“It a sore point because industry has done a wonderful job of reducing Salmonella,” added Perdue.  “It comes from a variety of sources, not just chicken.”