McDonald's new CEO may trade beef for chicken amid a shaky economy

Leslie Patton / Bloomberg News /

CHICAGO — McDonald’s new chief executive officer is playing chicken with the menu.

As Don Thompson, 49, steps into the CEO role at the world’s largest restaurant chain, customers may see more new chicken items instead of beef. Thompson is pulling from McDonald’s 160-item recipe book, which includes bone-in chicken wings and cashew teriyaki salads with chicken, to sell new food and attract cash-conscious consumers amid a shaky global economy. It’s a “tremendous opportunity,” Thompson said during a consumer conference on May 30.

“Some great examples include our large wrap in Europe and snack items like Chicken McBites,” he said. “Our customers have given us permission to stretch our brand, so we are entering new categories with new products.”

McDonald’s is looking to draw budget-minded Americans with chicken items, which can be priced lower than other proteins, according to Bryan Elliott, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla. “The consumer is expressing some recent signs of distress” and chicken costs are “cheap relative to beef right now by a lot,” he said.

McDonald’s, along with other fast-food operators, is facing government austerity programs in Europe, declining consumer confidence in the U.S. and slowing economic growth in Asia. Sales at McDonald’s stores open at least 13 months rose 3.3 percent worldwide in May, trailing analysts’ estimates for growth of 5.2 percent.

Chicken also is “perceived to be healthier,” Elliott said. “That could certainly be a factor in their thinking.”

A Big Mac has 550 calories, while a six-piece order of Chicken McNuggets has 280 calories.

Last week, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company began selling 410-calorie Spicy Chicken McBites in the United States. At the same time, Americans are expected to eat more poultry.