Chicken Sales Up, But Will Beef Be Sustainable?

America has loved beef, and restaurants have known that for decades. Hamburgers are iconic in the county, beef is a popular topping for pizza, and it even finds its way into pasta, salads, nachos, and more.

Chicken has always been a stalwart competitor, offering a healthier and, in many cases, lower-cost option (as you can raise a ton of chicken quicker than it takes to raise one cow). While turkey may be on the rise for health benefits, and there will always be vegetarian alternatives for those interested, beef was the dominant protein for Americans.

“Was” being the key word, as for the first time in 100 years, chicken has overtaken beef in consumption in America, Priceonomics reports.

Per capita chicken consumption in the US has risen from under 20 lbs in 1909 to about 60 lbs in 2012. During this same time span, beef consumption has dropped from a peak of over 80 lbs per capita in the 1970s to under 60 lbs in 2012. We eat as much beef now as we did in 1909.

Many different factors are possibly in play here. For one thing, a head of beef has always been relatively pricey compared to other forms of meat. Over the past 20 years, beef prices have risen drastically versus broiler (chicken) and pork.

There’s no singular reason why chicken sales have eclipsed beef sales; chicken is easier to produce, easier to cook, and healthier to consume, so those three factors have made it more publicly considered. While it’s nice to have a nice steak or hamburger, a chicken breast or chicken sandwich is leaner, cheaper, and healthier for you.

This doesn’t mean beef is going away, or even leaving the consumer’s consciousness. McDonald’s is betting that people will still want to eat hamburgers in the coming years so much that they are investing in more sustainable beef sources, and hope to be using them by 2016, Nation’s Restaurant News reports.

Problems with this plan include there not being a universal definition for “sustainable beef”, with their definition of this model being

“We want to do our part to improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare,” the company said. “Plus, we envision doing all of this while providing affordability and quality, along with economic viability for those who raise cattle and produce beef.”

Additionally, the sheer amount of sources for sustainable beef just might not be where McDonald’s would need to be to consistently supply their chains.

A shift to sustainable beef would be a major PR move for the company,and would be lauded for the health effects as well, as many people are already wondering about eating beef (and chicken) raised with antibiotics.

The sources and types of protein consumers choose is changing; is your restaurant looking into more chicken dishes, or ensuring that the beef used on your menu is sustainable?