It’s the end of a long workday, and you just realized that you have nothing in the fridge. An overpriced UberEats order just isn’t feasible for your bank account, but the idea of actually cooking a full meal is enough to make you lose your appetite. Enter the grocery store rotisserie chicken. The smell of its spices and its thick, crunchy skin waft past you as contemplate buying a (probably more expensive) chunk of meat that you’ll have to season and cook yourself. If you’re like me, one whiff of that familiar but seductive aroma is all you need to know that you will not, in fact, be cooking anything that night and will instead succumb to a juicy, crisped Costco drumstick.
It’s a tale as old of time but one that ultimately makes economic sense for stores like Costco and BJ’s. Technically, stores that sell their rotisserie chickens for so cheap are selling them at a loss. They’re actually losing money on these chickens. These types of products are known as “loss leaders,” and they essentially work by attracting customers to the store. The store may lose money on the rotisserie chicken, but chances are, customers are going to buy other items while they’re there, thereby making it a profitable sale for the company.
As inflation causes food prices to rise at alarming rates—CNN reported that food prices were up almost 10% from April 2021 to April 2022—rotisserie chickens are not jumping in price, despite the fact that meat prices rose even more steeply during the same time period. Rotisserie chickens are likely to become even more of an important staple in consumers’ diets as they make changes to their grocery-buying routines to account for these rapidly rising prices. And considering that many Americans are struggling to pay for groceries right now, it’s not a bad thing that there are relatively affordable options available that don’t come from a fast food joint.
But even though meat prices are on the rise, it doesn’t mean we’re paying a fair price for them. Truthfully, even now, the meat we eat costs us less than it takes to produce—and that cost doesn’t account for the environmental toll of meat production or the human toll (in the form of difficult working conditions and low wages) on the workers who produce the meat that ends up in our grocery stores. These prices are kept artificially low by government subsidies for soy and corn, which end up in animal feed.
There is an immense amount of suffering tied up in these costs that meat magnates hand off to animals, taxpayers and people around the world already facing the brunt of the consequences of climate change. Most obvious is the suffering factory-farmed animals must endure: It’s no secret that CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which produce the vast majority of meat we eat in the U.S., result not just in suffering at the moment of death but throughout animals’ limited lifespans. But factory farm workers are also subjected to shockingly poor working conditions for low pay, and those who live near factory farms (often poor and low-income residents) often suffer from dangerous pollution. CAFOs also exact their toll on the environment—livestock production is responsible for a whopping 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.
This has led some to suggest that, despite inflation already affecting Americans attempting to make their meat dollar stretch, meat prices should actually go even higher to account for meat’s true cost. Of course, if you ask me, large meat-producing operations should pay for the bulk of these price hikes. But invariably, they will be passed onto consumers as well.
It’s a complicated issue. That $5 rotisserie chicken may be one of the few reliable meals a single parent can put on the table that their family actually enjoys. The convenience and low price tag make it one of the more accessible items on store shelves. And even as meat prices spike, they are still more affordable than they would be if we were we paying the true cost of our meat. Government intervention to raise the cost of meat to reflect a more accurate cost could price many out of the butcher’s shop entirely, increasing the already-criminal levels of wealth inequality the U.S. is currently suffering from—but this issue should be met with other policies that give people better access to education, to housing, to fair wages, to food in general.
We cannot continue letting our hunger for meat—and the corporations that provide it to us—obscure the rights of people, animals and the environment. If we allow it to continue, we will all pay for it eventually, though some more than others. Scorching temps in much of the world this summer are early proof. As much as I love a Costco rotisserie chicken, I wish it costed more than it did, even if that means it goes from weekly staple to occasional treat. In the meantime, catch me in the bean aisle.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.