By Michael Hirtzer
CHICAGO (Reuters) - With U.S. chicken production set to fall for the first time in 36 years and demand for chicken wings on the rise as hungry football fans flock to sports bars, restaurants are running into an age-old problem: a chicken has only two wings.
Coming to the rescue are so-called "boneless wings," small bits of chicken breast meat that are breaded, flavored, fried and served.
"A boneless wing is a complete misnomer but consumer acceptance has been rather good," said Jim Robb, economist at the Livestock Marketing Information Center.
"Clearly this has been accepted in the restaurant trade as a supplement to the traditional wing, or the real wings, whatever you want to call it," Robb said.
Poultry producers this year cut production for the first time since 1973 due to easing demand for the traditionally premium part of the bird -- the chicken breast.
U.S. Agriculture Department, in its monthly production report released on Tuesday, forecast broiler production to be down about 3.5 percent this year.
Meanwhile, USDA reported wholesale wings cost about $1.55 per lb this week in the northeastern United States, while boneless chicken breasts were at $1.12 per lb. Two years ago chicken breasts were about 10 percent more expensive than wings.
Demand for chicken wings, boneless or otherwise, typically peaks on Super Bowl Sunday, which falls on February 7, 2010.
But the price inversion, where breasts are cheaper than wings, may last longer as consumers eschew higher-end restaurants.
"You can go out for chicken wings and a beer. It's inexpensive event dining," said David Maloni, analyst at the American Restaurant Association.
Boneless wings may have an advantage, in that they are not as messy to eat and, since they are made with the white breast meat, are less fatty. But many still choose "traditional" wings due to the old idiom: fat is flavor.
"You have a taste difference," Maloni said. "White meat tends to be, depending on how it's cooked, it might be a little drier but it should be somewhat healthier because it's not as fatty."
Paul Aho, economist at Poultry Perspective, said the price gap between breasts and wings should narrow soon.
"This is unusual for wings to be worth so much more than the de-boned breast. They will come closer together in the future," Aho said. "Next year, maybe, when the economy recovers."
(Reporting by Michael Hirtzer; Editing by David Gregorio)