Wed | Sep 26, 2018

Pee-pee, cluck-cluck after chicken back

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Fried chicken back at a session of 'Chicken Back Thursday' in Old Harbour, St Catherine, in September 2013. -Rasbert Turner/Photographer
Martin Henry

Martin Henry

The humble chicken back, food for the poor and for wealthier people's dogs, has made it to the front page of a major newspaper! Last Sunday, this newspaper was screaming on A1: 'Massive chicken back bill!' The burden of the story was "the high import bill despite the 11-year-old Eat Jamaican campaign".

But there is an even more important story nesting in The Sunday Gleaner's numbers.

Are we seeing an upward rise in the consumption of imported chicken back? In 2011, 66 million pounds of the commodity was imported. This jumped to 71 million pounds in 2012, with a slight fall back to 70 million pounds last year. It will be interesting to see what this year's figure turns out to be; and it would be useful to have the numbers to five years back. In any case, the opposition spokesman on agriculture, J.C. Hutchinson, says demand is growing. And he is in a good position to know, or be bawled out for fabricating his own facts.

Keith Amiel, the manager of corporate affairs at Caribbean Broilers, the No. 2 chicken producer, is, of course, quite right when he told The Gleaner, "Believing that people like chicken back is a lie, it is not true. They would rather have the mixed parts so that each member of the family can get what they want."

And it's the mixed parts that the American poultry industry is churning out for their market. The backs and necks are what lef, which can be dumped into export markets like Jamaica cheaply.

And Jamaica needs the cheap chicken back since its masses of poor people can neither afford the whole chicken or chicken parts as a regular item of diet but must rely on the what lef.

People have rioted over food prices elsewhere. And every Jamaican politician must know that you mess with poor people's food at your peril.

The two major competing poultry companies, Jamaica Broilers and Caribbean Broilers, are in one accord that they could supply all the chicken meat of whatever part that Jamaica needs. Their problem is not technical capacity, but "the saleability of the chicken at the cost of production of chicken in Jamaica", says CB's Amiel. If a political decision is made to stop allowing cheap chicken back into the island, he argues, the demand for chicken meat of all categories would be met through local production within three months.

It seems to me that the Government has legitimate grounds, even in the global open market, to impose a level of duty on imported chicken back to counterbalance the underpricing of the commodity by the exporters.

Alternatively, although not the best of ideas, the Government could subsidise Jamaican producers to bring cheaper chicken back and neck to market in the interest of protein for the poor. But to go the route proposed by Christopher Levy, president and CEO of Jamaica Broilers, that "we need to recognise that local production is important and stop importing altogether" won't fly. Consumers, already down to chicken back because they cannot afford whole chicken or the pricier parts thereof, cannot in good conscience - or good politics, or good economics - be asked to bear higher prices for the what lef in support of domestic production.

As The Gleaner chicken back story last Sunday noted in passing, the Eat Jamaican campaign, in its current iteration, is in its 11th year. This agriculture campaign, like its sister manufacturing campaign, Buy Jamaican, is mostly sloganeering without substance. While there can be some substitution at the level of vegetables, fruits, and ground provision, the fact of the matter is Jamaica, from the time of the Spanish colonisation, which wiped out the self-sufficient Stone Age Tainos, has always imported its staple bulk carbohydrates and staple proteins - flour, rice, salt fish.

Even if the cultural taste barriers could be overcome, we have no capacity whatsoever to produce sufficient bulk carbohydrates to meet the minimum calorie requirements of a population of 2.7 million. We could perhaps, in theory, produce enough poultry for protein, as JB and CB argue in their own interest, but we have to bear in mind that feed and other inputs, including fertile eggs, I believe, are imported, and the chickens just stand here close-packed in coops and convert foreign inputs into Jamaican protein and at a higher price than imports.

domestic consumption

When we studied the domestic banana and plantain markets a few years back for the European Union Banana Support Programme and RADA, we found from trade statistics a fairly static demand for flour and rice as bulk carbohydrates, which the country was importing at the rate of 130,000 tonnes of flour and 100,000 tonnes of rice per annum. In contrast, domestic consumption of banana, the biggest domestically produced bulk carbohydrate, is estimated at around 50,000 tonnes. And bear in mind that flour and rice are dry weight, while banana is mostly water, with much less caloric value per kilogramme.

On the backside of The Sunday Gleaner's page one chicken back lead is a story about 'Small farmers in Portland risking life and limb as they struggle to survive'. Farmer Wilson, having narrated the hardships and costs involved in growing his crops and getting produce to Coronation Market in Kingston, defiantly declared that when potential buyers "bawl bout the price, me run dem weh".

"Yuh can't tell me how to sell my tings. If yuh nuh want it, yuh just leave it." Bad economics but correct.

And consumers turn to cheaper alternatives, often imported and of better quality. Farmer Wilson's banana, plantain and dasheen are merely dispensable options purchased when the price is right for the consumer to be able to afford to diversify the core diet of rice and flour and chicken back.

What will vary most with economic circumstance is protein consumption, more expensive and more dispensable in a food crunch. So chicken back consumption can provide us with a powerful hardship index, a poverty index. If consumption is going up as The Gleaner story would suggest and J.C. Hutchinson says it is, then it means more people are unable to afford whole chicken or preferred chicken parts and are falling back on chicken back.

Now when you consider that the unemployment figures from STATIN have been showing some decline, a pattern of increased chicken back consumption is pointing to an increase in the ranks of the working poor. People have jobs but can't eat. Real wages and spending power are in decline. There is an official wage freeze for public-sector workers now in its sixth year. Private-sector salaries, taking cues from the State, have not moved much either over the period.

Meanwhile, the Jamaican dollar has lost nearly 50 per cent of its value, 47.46 per cent to be exact, over the last six years (J$76.47: US$1, November 4, 2008; J$112.76: US$1, November 4, 2014). Depreciation is supposed to favour exports but makes imports more expensive, like chicken meat, chicken feed, and hatching eggs. The unemployed and the working poor bear the brunt of these economic adjustments, which allow the country to pass IMF tests with flying colours.

But don't mess with the meat of the masses! Instead, we should use chicken back consumption as a most valuable index of poverty and economic hardship, which may be increasing, despite the official numbers, if the consumption of the chicken what lef is anything to fly by.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to and