Does America Have Enough Small Chickens to Fulfill Our Sandwich Frenzy?

Smaller birds taste better, but now they're in shorter supply.

America's chicken sandwich wars — including the breakout success of Popeyes Chicken Sandwich and the emergence of Chick-fil-A as possibly the most important chain in the current fast food landscape — has been fantastic for our country's taste buds, but not necessarily great for America's chicken supply. And specifically, the smallest chickens are apparently in the biggest demand.

The correlation between smaller chickens and tastier food is not a new revelation: Wendy's made headlines by announcing an investment to shift to smaller birds in an effort to improve texture and juiciness back in 2017. It turns out they were ahead of what has become a rapidly steepening curve. As everyone remembers, Popeyes infamously had to pull its chicken sandwich from stores for months, and Bloomberg now reports that's specifically because they couldn't get enough of these smaller birds to fulfill the rabid demand. And the business site suggests things are only going to get worse from here.

A Chick-fil-A spicy chicken sandwich
Chick-fil-A's spicy chicken sandwich. Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

For generations, chickens were bred to have larger and larger breasts — choosing quantity over quality and theoretically providing more bang for a farmer's buck. But as consumers have demanded improvements in quality — as well as animal welfare — smaller breasts have emerged as the chickens of choice. In fact, Bloomberg states that breasts from smaller birds under 4.25 pounds are now at triple the cost of breasts from "jumbo" nine-pound chickens, billed as a historically wide difference. The small breasts reportedly have other advantages besides flavor, too: They fit perfectly inside a bun, meaning they require less labor to cut the breasts and less waste from trimmings.

So just how low is the current supply? Bloomberg said the biggest American producers they contacted wouldn't comment, but those in the know didn't sound optimistic. "Whatever demand growth we might have on smaller breasts, there's no new supply to meet that demand," Will Sawyer, an animal-protein economist, told the site. Maybe KFC has the right idea looking into plant-based chicken instead?

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