AUSTRALIA'S increasing taste for chicken has lifted total consumption of the white poultry meat to just exceed both traditional red meat staples, beef and lamb, combined.
While annual national veal, beef and sheepmeat consumption figures now hover around 34 and 9.5 kilograms a head respectively, Australians are eating almost 45kg/head of chicken - up nearly 1 per cent in the past 18 months.
During the next five years chicken consumption is tipped to keep rising to around 47kg/capita a year according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).
Pigmeat consumption has also increased by about 2pc annually in the past decade to about 24kg/capita in 2011-12.
But unlike the chicken meat sector, which is virtually all home-grown, much of the extra pork, ham and bacon eaten has been imported, with 152,000 tonnes - about half total consumption - expected to be imported this year.
The Australian Chicken Meat Federation (ACMF) estimated consumer spending on fresh, frozen and cooked chicken products now exceeded $5.6 billion.
Chicken meat's low retail price, ease of preparation and its popularity as a value added semi-prepared meal offering in supermarkets, specialty retailers and butcher shops have continued to promote increasing consumer loyalty.
"There's been a little more marketing activity lately, particularly since Baiada Poultry took over Bartter and the Steggles brand, but in general consumption growth is driven by the consumer's hip pocket," said ACMF executive director, Andreas Dubs.
He said competitive pricing also appeared to be behind the white meat gaining more prominence on menus across quick service food sector.
While retail chicken meat values rose slightly in response to higher grain prices encountered by producers in the past year, price growth was still below consumer price index rises.
Higher grain and energy costs had chewed into production and processing margins, but the improving weight gains, bird mortality rates and integrated production efficiencies achieved by the industry were continuing to keep the meat highly competitive.
ABARES price index of meat values puts chicken about 50pc cheaper than pork and beef and 150pc below lamb for 2012-13.
In the past 20 years average meat yields across the industry have gained bout 1pc annually to now stand at almost two kilograms/bird.
With local chicken meat production averaging about 4pc annual growth, Australia is set to produce almost 1.1m tonnes in the coming financial year.
Dr Dubs said about 31pc of that meat was destined to be turned into crumbed chicken nuggets, frozen meals or other pre-prepared products which had gained considerable appeal with consumers in the past decade.
Supermarkets represented the largest distribution channel (40pc) for the remaining fresh or frozen chicken meat cuts or whole bodies, followed by wholesalers (19pc), fast food chains (13pc) and the food service and hospitality sector (8pc).
Pet foods accounted for 6pc of the chicken meat market - quit a bit more than butchers sold.
National Australia Bank's (NAB) agribusiness, general manager Khan Horne said as a major buyer of more than five per cent of Australia's total grain crop, the chicken meat industry had been able to respond to rising grain prices and continuing strong demand by achieving a lift in local meat prices up above historical trends.
But the past year's price trend was likely to unwind slightly as global corn and soybean production and prices returned to normal.
"In real terms, chicken meat is still cheaper now than a decade ago, and the industry's productivity gains are set to continue into the medium term," Mr Horne said.
He said chicken's export growth was also expected to resume in 2013-14, but exports only accounted for 3pc of total production volume.
The pork industry had also been impacted by rising feed costs, but retail prices had stayed relatively flat.
Mr Horne said although pig producers were also being weighed down by the expense of meeting requirements to phase out sow stalls the high degree of structural consolidation seen in the past decade was stabilising and local production was back to near levels seen 15 years ago.