Climate Change Is Igniting a Fast-Food Chicken War

As beef prices skyrocket because of severe drought, quick-serve competitors are scrambling to serve up the best burger alternative.

The original McDonald's Chicken Selects. (Photo: Flickr)

Feb 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

It’s a battle of golden-brown, honey mustard–dipped attrition.

Burger King is playing the volume game, mortar-shelling every discounted, mechanically separated chicken nugget it has directly into consumers’ mouths. For a limited time, you can get a 10-piece order for $1.49—nearly three times less than the equivalent at McDonald’s.

But on Thursday, Mickey D’s dealt an important retaliatory blow: It brought back Chicken Selects, the ill-fated chicken tenders that trudged along menu boards from 2003 to 2013. They may be overpriced ($2.99 for three pieces), pumped full of saltwater, and not very popular to begin with, but corporate thinks bringing the fried tenders back could be a key turning point in the struggle for poultry dominance.

Oh, and somewhere Wendy’s is waving a white flag masquerading as an Asiago Ranch Chicken Club.

Why is chicken all of a sudden reigning supreme? What ended the era of Big Mac and Baconator hegemony? Climate change.

According a study by scientists from NASA, Columbia University, and Cornell University published in the journal Science Advances, if the world stays on its current path of greenhouse gas emissions, there is an 80 percent chance of a 35-year megadrought hitting the American Southwest.

But after four years and counting of extremely little rainfall, U.S. cattle production is already taking a dry, dusty hit. Since 2010, Texas—the nation’s leading cattle producer—has lost 24 percent of its herd, and according to a report by Reuters, the total amount of cattle in the U.S. was at a 63-year low by the end of 2014.

Even with a diminishing supply, America didn’t stop demanding steaks and burgers. Over the past four years, beef prices have risen by 17 percent, while consumption has only dropped by 3 percent. That said, there’s a stark difference between an individual consumer buying the occasional porterhouse and a fast-ood conglomerate being able to stomach a higher ingredient cost for a burger that’s already being sold for 99 cents.

Former McDonald’s franchisee Richard Adams told Reuters that beef prices were so high in 2013 that the company lost money on every McDouble it sold. That’s devastating for a company whose profits have fallen in each of the past 11 years.

Since poultry takes ten times less water to produce than beef, the chicken industry has actually profited from the drought. According to projections from the USDA, chicken production is set to increase by over one billion pounds in 2015, and wholesale prices are set to drop about 8 percent. When McDonald’s announced that it was bringing back Chicken Selects, it actually alleviated fears in the chicken industry of oversupply—an issue that caused Tyson’s profits to drop 21 percent back in 2012.

Even though the economics of the chicken war make sense, the addition of another item comes at a strange time for the flagging Golden Arches, whose franchisees are already struggling with an unnecessarily complicated menu. It also goes against McDonald’s long-term plan to reduce its total ingredient list and gradually wean itself off artificial preservatives.

So, who will win this highly contested chicken war? Colonel Sanders has the most military experience, but technically the Burger King outranks him, so that might come into play on the crispy, crunchy battlefield.