Why Does Costco’s $4.99 Rotisserie Chicken Taste…Soapy? A Hunt for Answers

Why Does Costco’s $4.99 Rotisserie Chicken Taste…Soapy? A Hunt for Answers

Costco’s humble yet mighty rotisserie chicken is widely regarded as That Girl of the grocery store. She’s versatile—toss that meat in a soup, shred it up into a salad, or eat it straight up. She’s economical—$4.99 for a whole bird, a price that has remained flat for nearly two decades. She’s a beacon of the value shoppers’ paradise, a crispy-skinned embodiment of Costco’s more-for-less business model. And she’s delicious—or she used to be.

On Reddit, fans recently reported Costco’s signature chicken tasting distinctly “soapy” and “chemically.” One called it “chlorine-like.” Another shared that her cat—for whom a Costco chicken was “primary sustenance”—turned her nose at the supposed new formula. “One day I brought home a fresh one and she completely refused it after smelling what was in her dish,” she wrote. “Thinking that maybe it was just the one chicken, I bought her another, and then another, and she won’t touch any of it.”

Although he didn’t say it was “soapy,” even celebrity chef and Momofuku founder David Chang flamed Costco’s chicken earlier this year, deeming it “inedible.” 

As fate would have it, I purchased and ate a Costco rotisserie chicken two weeks ago, entirely oblivious to the above discourse. To the best of my recollection, I tasted no soapiness, and all in all it was a standard, uniformly juicy rotisserie chicken with browned, crispy skin, and its carcass imparted pleasantly meaty flavor to a congee the next morning.

I’ll disclose: I’m no devotee of the Costco rotisserie chicken, unlike those who took to Reddit to share their misgivings. But I would consider myself a discerning rotisserie chicken enthusiast, and I’d like to believe I could tell a good one from a bad one, or a soapy one. For what it’s worth, I thought this one fell squarely in the “good,” not-soapy camp. 

But if Reddit (and Chang) are proof, one Costco rotisserie chicken doesn’t represent the gamut of them. I decided to dig deeper.

Could geography be a crucial part of the puzzle? In the thread, self-proclaimed deli worker u/gracedboss noted that the chain sources its chicken from at least two different suppliers—some from in-house processing plants in Iowa and Nebraska, which produce 40% of their total supply, and some from “foster farms” in California. Perhaps, they posited, this accounted for the quality discrepancy experienced by consumers in different parts of the country. 

I scanned recent Google reviews of a few Costco locations in Iowa (West Des Moines, Davenport, and Coralville) and Nebraska (Omaha, La Vista, and Lincoln), eyes peeled for any mention of soapy or otherwise subpar chicken. Other than one review in Davenport claiming their chicken was completely raw inside (obviously concerning for reasons I don’t have to explicate), I found nothing other than glowing reports. “Cheap!” “Delicious!” “Cheap!”

Then I stumbled upon an OregonLive story from 2013 that confirmed that Costco sources some of its chickens from Foster Farms, capital F, in the Bay Area. (In 2013 and 2014, it was the site of more than one rotisserie chicken recall spurred by respective batches of positive salmonella cases.) 

Well, I had procured my chicken in Connecticut. What about the thread-goers?

A loyal Costco member for the past decade, the original poster, Abraham, told me over the phone that he purchases the chicken at least “a few times a year”—in Southern California. (Hoping not to associate his identity with his Reddit account, he requested we omit his last name.) The first time he noted the chemical taste early this year, it was “mild,” and mostly localized to the skin of the chicken. He mentally cataloged it but charged ahead, buying yet another chicken. 

The second time? “We just tossed it,” he said. “We didn’t eat it or give it to the kids.”

Another Californian, Shawn LaVrar, shared in a DM with me that they’d noticed the soapy taste roughly three times in the last couple of years—also on the skin of the chicken.

What’s more, a Washington, DC-based writer for Today.com reported his recent Costco rotisserie “didn’t taste any different,” while a San Francisco-based reporter for Insider wrote last year that her Costco rotisserie chicken tasted “unnatural.” 

Was I onto something? Foster Farms didn’t respond to a request for comment. So I called up Harshavardhan Thippareddi, PhD, professor of poultry science at the University of Georgia, ever-so-smugly awaiting a verbal pat on the back for cracking the soapy chicken code. Instead, he nipped that theory right in the bud. Costco, the mega powerful chain it is, likely standardizes chicken preparation across all of its suppliers, he said, so it’s unlikely that one farm would turn out remarkably worse chicken than the next. 

“They tell all their suppliers, ‘Hey, this is what we want you to do,’” he said. “It’s not up to the processor or supplier.” (Costco did not respond to a request for comment.)

While my geography theory quickly dissipated into obsolescence, and with it my confidence in my investigatory skills, he offered another culprit: phosphate. He said that rotisserie chicken, prone to dryness in the preparation stage, is often injected by many poultry suppliers with the chemical compound to keep them extra juicy. Indeed, Costco’s rotisserie chickens include phosphate among a laundry list of other ingredients with very long names. And while ideally consumers shouldn’t be able to taste phosphate, Thippareddi said, some are more sensitive to the chemical than others.

Perhaps people tasting soapy notes in Costco chickens were reacting to the phosphate. As I searched various permutations of “phosphate,” “chicken,” and “soap” on Google, one 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research stopped me in my tracks. Researchers from Texas Tech and Auburn University found that “excess phosphate addition can cause ‘soapy’ flavors, rubbery texture, and poor color.” 

The California Dried Plum Board, suggesting that phosphates be replaced with…dried plums, also noted in a 2011 “bulletin” that “alkaline phosphates result in a ‘soapy’ flavor when used at too high a level.” I’d have to assume that the California Dried Plum Board has a financial interest in plugging dried plums as an industrial-scale additive to millions of chickens, but hey, evidence is evidence.  

I fell deeper down the phosphate rabbit hole. Walton’s Inc, a meat processing supply company that literally sells sodium phosphate, put the theory to the test in 2020 in a Facebook video in which a man tastes three chicken breasts injected with different concentrations of phosphate. The more phosphate in the chicken, the more effectively it can retain moisture, he says, but once you pass the Goldilocks window of phosphate juiciness, you hit a “point of no return.” The cut of chicken injected with the most phosphate tasted “chemically,” according to this nameless man.

Emboldened by nameless man’s empirical findings, adrenaline coursing through my veins, I found another corroborating piece of evidence from Nassau Foods, a Minnesota-based seasoning producer: “One should be cautious with high phosphate levels in high-fat products because fat and phosphate make soap, and some consumers will get a soapy taste in those products.”

Even Chang pinned the unappetizing taste of Costco’s chicken on the cocktail of chemicals on that ingredient list: “There’s something about all the nitrates and all the crap they pump into the chicken that makes the chicken breast even more disgusting the next day when it’s cold.”

To find out the truth once and for all, I did ask Costco itself about why its chickens tasted soapy. Like Foster Farms, they were silent on the matter. 

Costco’s chickens are, notoriously, sold at a loss, kept at dirt cheap prices to keep luring customers back. Vox reports that the brand has been able to sustain this model by controlling every tier of its own supply chain. Unfortunately, this means we probably shouldn’t expect its chickens to taste consistently the same—or consistently good. 

All to say: Consider my investigation inconclusive. It’s not clear why consumers—especially Californians?—are tasting sudsy chicken and how much phosphate has to do with it. Maybe Costco chicken is just a modern-day cilantro: Some people think it tastes like straight-up dishwashing detergent, while others are immune. Or maybe, just maybe, $4.99 chicken isn’t supposed to taste great in the first place. 

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