On a recent grocery shopping expedition, I was looking at the price of a whole raw chicken when I realized it was actually more expensive than the fully-cooked rotisserie chicken the store’s deli was selling, even though they were around the same size.
I had a hard time believing that labor and cooking costs wouldn’t add to the price of a rotisserie chicken, so I started doing some digging.
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Turns out rotisserie chicken is actually a loss leader in some grocery stores, meaning it sells for a low price solely for the purpose of drawing in customers and hoping they’ll buy extra items to go along with their meal. Stores like Costco actually lose money on rotisserie chickens—upwards of $40 million a year—but they have no plans to raise their prices, or stop selling them, because they make it up in other sales. And other grocery stores may be following suit.
“If they get a chicken, a salad, and maybe they pick up a bottle of wine—now we’re really talking,” Don Fitzgerald, vice president of merchandising at the Kroger-owned grocery chain Mariano’s, told the Wall Street Journal.
But there’s also another, more questionable practice that keeps the cost of rotisserie chickens low, according to this Reddit thread. And well, I have mixed feelings. Now, this is just one (admittedly anonymous) person, but according to one Redditor who claims to have worked in the grocery industry, rotisserie chicken is so inexpensive because it’s chicken that wasn’t sold by its “sell-by” date.
But before you freak out and swear off rotisserie birds forever, you should know that sell-by dates aren’t always indicative of food safety. The USDA says that sell-by and best-by dates are only intended “to help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.”
The National Chicken Council estimates that 900 million rotisserie chickens were sold last year in foodservice and retail outlets, and while I don’t have exact numbers to back this up, I’d be willing to bet that not all of those rotisserie birds were sold to customers. So what happens to not-so-fresh rotisserie chickens?
Wegmans spokesman Jo Natale told the Washington Post rotisserie chickens that haven’t been sold after three hours are taken off shelves, blast-chilled overnight, and then made into the store’s signature Rotisserie Chicken Noodle Soup.
And if you think about it, it’s actually pretty smart on the grocery store’s part. Rotisserie chicken is versatile and can be repurposed into lots of different dishes—like chicken Alfredo, chopped chicken at the salad bar, or chicken salad—to be (re)sold to customers. Otherwise, that hours-old chicken would’ve likely ended up in a trash, along with the grocery store’s profits.
Not to mention, it’s a more sustainable choice. According to a 2018 study from MIT, Americans waste over 20 percent of food at the consumer level (or 225-290 pounds per person annually.) That number is disheartening, and suddenly two-day-old chicken salad doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
It’s also worth mentioning that some grocery stores donate unused, unsold items to food banks. According to Feeding America’s website, they secure donations “from national food and grocery manufacturers, retailers, shippers, packers and growers and from government agencies and other organizations. We have staff that work closely with the partners to match excess food with the food banks that most need it.”
The bottom line: Rotisserie chickens may not be fresh off the farm, but they definitely won’t hurt you. Just make sure to heed this advice from the USDA: “When purchasing fully cooked rotisserie or fast food chicken, be sure it is hot at the time of purchase. Use it within 2 hours or cut it into several pieces and refrigerate in shallow, covered containers. Eat within 3 to 4 days, either cold or reheated to 165 °F (73.9 °C). It is safe to freeze ready-prepared chicken. For best quality, flavor, and texture, use it within 4 months.”
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