Demand for chicken is picking up after a slow start to the outdoor grilling season, and high prices for beef and pork are expected to support featuring of chicken by retailers and foodservice operators this summer, top executives of chicken companies told an investment conference this week.

“We are happy with the improvement in demand we’ve seen following a cold, wet April,” Donnie Smith, president and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, said at the BMO Capital Markets 2011 Farm to Market Conference in New York.  Because beef and pork pricing are strong, many retailers and food service operators are likely to feature chicken this summer, he added. Chicken prices remain soft considering the time of year, Smith added.  Protein demand has suffered so far this spring due in part to bad weather that offered few opportunities for outdoor grilling, analysts said.

The restaurant trade continues to struggle with slack demand linked to high unemployment, other executives said at the conference.  “We saw very little demand” connected to dining out on Mother’s Day, said Joe Sanderson Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Sanderson Farms.  All three protein markets–beef, pork and poultry–have underperformed, added Bill Lovette, president and chief executive officer of Pilgrim’s Pride.  “Consumers are not as willing to spend as much money on total protein as we expected them to,” Lovette said.

Export markets are taking up some of the slack, said Noel White, senior group vice president of Tyson Fresh Meats.  “Exports, along with production efficiencies and value-added programs, are driving our earnings,” White said. Going forward, he does not see major changes in the solid fundamentals of beef and pork.  “The outlook is bright,” he concluded.