Last winter, the National Chicken Council sparked a rumor that Super Bowl fans could face a national chicken wing shortage, after prices for the snack reached record highs. And while analysts at the time were quick to blame gluttonous football fans, it looks like McDonald's may have played a part in the scare.
In a statement in January, the trade group predicted that fans would eat 1 percent fewer chicken wings than they did in 2012, and attributed the drop to widespread droughts in 2012, as well as the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program that demands a portion of the U.S.'s corn crop be converted into ethanol. Those factors led corn prices to spike, said the group, which in turn led to higher chicken food prices, which in turn led to fewer chickens.
As Matt Yglesias said at Slate at the time, the National Chicken Council's estimate that there would be 1 percent fewer chicken wings at the Super Bowl was "based on the fact that America produced about 1 percent fewer chickens over the past year than the year before."
But that’s not for want of demand. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Livestock, Dairy & Poultry Outlook report said prices for whole chickens were 21 percent higher in December 2012 than December 2011. For wings, the price increase was an even larger 26 percent year-on-year. The rocketing prices are a textbook sign of the steady or growing demand running up against a reduced stock of chickens. [Slate]
Indeed, a 26 percent year-on-year price increase sounds high for a one percent drop in supply.
So where was all that demand coming from? Enter McDonald's, which this week announced plans to reintroduce its bone-in Mighty Wings at its 14,100 U.S. locations — a roll-out set to take place September 9 through September 24.
To prepare for the tsunami of chicken wings, McDonald's has probably been stockpiling them for 18 months, analyst Nick Setyan told Vanessa Wong at Bloomberg Businessweek.
Yes, gross. But also, interesting: Because McDonald's is so enormous, introducing any new menu item has a noticeable impact on the nation's food supply. "The company added apples to the menu and became one of the country's largest apple buyers," Wong says. In the case of chicken, McDonald's growing wing collection, along with the higher price of corn, may have combined to drive up the price of chicken
And not by a little. Wong says prices rose from 90 cents a pound in 2011 to touch $2 a pound last winter. Prices are now back down to $1.46 a pound, but chicken wing prices always rise during the football season, reaching a finger-licking crescendo at the Super Bowl.
McDonald's, for its part, is expecting to sell 250 million chicken wings between September 9 and the end of November.
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