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CHICAGO -- Cows may be able to relax a little, but chickens should get nervous. New research from Mintel Menu Insights shows that chicken has grown in popularity in the foodservice scene, and is expected to continue growing as the beef industry faces bad press related to 'pink slime' and a recent case of mad cow disease in California.
"In addition to the recent health-related issues surrounding beef, and the already high beef prices, we expect restaurants to start focusing their attention on other proteins," said Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst for Mintel. "Steakhouses have been struggling in this rough economy and have tried to compensate by offering smaller cuts or more "surf and turf" options, but ultimately, chicken menu innovation is giving restaurant-goers a fresh and less expensive option while dining out."
The number of U.S. menu items that include poultry as an ingredient has increased an average of 12 percent during the last three years, and expected to continue rising over the next one to two years, according to Mintel. The casual dining segment has seen the greatest growth, followed by fast casual restaurants.
Chicken fingers are the most popular poultry dish, boasting a 10-percent increase on menus from the first quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2012 and dominating quick service restaurants (QSR) and family/midscale settings, in large part due to their popularity as children's menu items and appetizers. Meanwhile, buffalo wings increased their presence by 19 percent; the steep, 36-percent decline of chicken sandwiches has been offset by a 35-percent increase in chicken wraps; and the use of chicken as a pizza topping has increased by 26 percent.
Chicken snacks have also been a more noticeable presence on menus, with McDonald's Chicken McBites, Whataburger's Whatachick'n Bites and White Castle's Chicken Rings having notable introductions in the QSR segment. Better-quality full-pieced, white-meat chicken and distinct sauces are primary ways brands are distinguishing themselves from the competition in a crowded field.
"Chicken is a versatile ingredient," concluded Hayden. "In the future, you can expect to see it used in more ways, from pulled chicken sandwiches and bowls to more home-styled meals, like pot pies and stews."