Chicken feet slow to scratch American markets

Sunday, April 18, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Tong Trithara prefers his chicken feet Thai-style -- in a salad with lemon grass and lime juice. Ainsworth Williams likes them Jamaican-style, stewed with vegetables. And Mr. Yen's restaurant in Springfield serves them Chinese-style, steamed in sauce.

In terms of demand in Springfield for chicken feet, that's about it.

On the other hand, southwest Missouri's annual supply of more than 14 million pounds of chicken feet is a significant commodity. And because of an international trade ban and a domestic disdain for foot meat, little of it is now sold for human consumption.

"Some people like it," said Lu Piapis, a manager at Mr. Yen's. "But not American people."

Still, last year the United States was the world's top supplier of chicken feet, with an estimated 8 billion feet shipped to China, where they are considered a delicacy and sold at street-side kiosks.

Southwest Missouri chicken processors scalded and skinned more than 280 million of those, turning them into what the industry refers to as chicken paws.

But in early February, the Chinese government halted imports of American poultry because of avian influenza outbreaks in the United States.

And that means southwest Missouri's chicken feet are now being ground into pet food, a less lucrative market.

"It's substantial," said Craig Coberley, plant manager of George's Processing in Cassville.

George's used to send about 700,000 pounds of paws to China every month.

Now instead of being skinned and scalded for human consumption, they are simply lopped off into a chute and sent straight to rendering.

George's earns about 7 cents less per pound on them.

"There's a big spread between what a renderer will pay for what is essentially a byproduct and what the Chinese will pay for what is essentially a delicacy," said Toby Moore, spokesman for USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, a nonprofit trade group based in Stone Mountain, Ga.

Moore does not expect the market to reopen in the near future, and in the meantime, it's unlikely that domestic demand will make up the difference.

"Put it this way, I don't think you'll see chicken paws at McDonald's anytime soon," Moore chuckled.

Nonetheless, there is domestic interest.

Enough, for example, that Binh Tay Oriental Food & Fashion in Springfield stocks them most Fridays.

Enough that they are one of the most popular items on Mr. Yen's weekend dim sum menu.

And enough that the U.S. Department of Agriculture grades chicken paws, in much the same way it grades eggs, Moore said.

"The Grade A would have to be the cream of the crop," he said, with a laugh. "Speaking of paws, it's strange to think about a 'cream of the crop."'

Such domestic demand is fueled by people like Ainsworth Williams, who grew up eating chicken feet in Jamaica, where they are considered a "first-class kind of food," he said.

But Williams doesn't serve any chicken-foot entrees at Tropical Breezes Jamaican Cafe & Grill because he just doesn't think Americans, including his wife, are ready.

"To be honest, anytime I can get it, I will eat it. My wife don't really care for it because she says it looks like a hand -- a baby hand," Williams said.

Americans who grew up eating chicken feet, however, are not rushing to repeat the experience either.

"It's edible," said Don Haselhorst, vice president of commodity sales for Springfield-based Willow Brook Foods, a turkey processor.

Haselhorst remembers his aunt's chicken-foot soup and its endless small bones.

"It wasn't very unusual. I guess nobody bragged about it, but anyone who lived on a farm, well, you tried to use everything," he said.

Turkey feet, however, are not generally eaten, he added, perhaps because they are so big and ugly.

But then, chicken feet are not generally in high demand, either. None of George's 800 employees has ever asked manager Coberley if they could take some chicken feet home.

"The chicken meat's just so much better," Coberley said, though he's never tasted feet himself.

Tyson Foods, which processes almost 12 million chicken feet in southwest Missouri, counteracted such opinions by introducing its employees to the Chinese delicacy. A few years after the Springdale, Ark.-based company started exporting its paws, it held a meeting during which it served them.

That's when spokesman Ed Nicholson tried them.

"They taste like chicken," he said. "... You just pick it up and munch around on it. It's like eating a wing, except it's a paw."

Which is part of what Trithara likes about chicken feet. He ate them as a child in Thailand and remembers how fun it was to suck the meat off the toe bones.

But Trithara doesn't feature any Thai chicken-paw specials on his menu at Tong's Thai Cuisine because he doesn't think they will sell.

"Some people think it's gross," he said, "but people like me crave for it."

Not so for his fiance, Laurie Anderson.

"I won't eat anybody's feet," she said. "Chicken feet. Pig feet. Cow feet."

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