A Shortage of Small-Breasted Chickens Is Hurting Fast Food Chains

As offerings like the Popeyes sandwich surge in popularity, there's a surprisingly big demand for little chickens.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
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Photo by Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Image

Chicken Little? He's in the Popeyes chicken sandwich, and all the other chicken sandwiches at fast food joints—if they can get their hands on him. As Bloomberg has reported, fast food chains are now fighting over small chickens weighing less than 4.5 pounds, whose breasts make the perfect size for a chicken sandwich.

Remember when Popeyes completely sold out of the famous sandwich just two weeks after its launch? According to Bloomberg, the chain thought it had enough supply for months, but that clearly wasn't the case—and we finally have an explanation for that puzzling shortage: As fast food chains ramp up their chicken sandwich offerings, there simply aren't enough chickens with perfectly sized, quarter-pound breasts. When it comes to making sandwiches, smaller breasts mean less labor and no trimmings that could go to waste.

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Chick-fil-A, one of the country's largest restaurant chains, is basically synonymous with chicken sandwiches; there's now Popeyes' ridiculously popular version, obviously; and McDonald's rolled out two new breakfast chicken sandwiches just this week.

The little chickens needed for these offerings are the exception to the huge-breasted birds Americans have gotten used to over the past century. Broiler chickens, prized for their plentiful white meat, have grown considerably this past century, from an average market weight of 2.5 pounds in 1925 to 6.26 pounds in 2018. Those birds have been bred to have larger breasts, which are great for cut-down offerings like chicken tenders and boneless wings, but obviously not so great for fitting between the buns of a sandwich.

Civil Eats reported last year that some producers are working to raise slower-growing and more athletic chickens, but animal-protein economist Will Sawyer told Bloomberg that there's no new supply to meet the growing demand. America's chicken sandwich obsession—and the endless push for fast food chains to make a version of their own—doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon.