During the fourth quarter of 2012, there were 330 chicken sandwiches on quick-service restaurants (QSR) across the country compared with 323 beef burgers, according to Mintel who compiled data for BurgerBusiness.com. Mintel said in its report that chicken sandwiches overtook beef burgers in 2010 when beef prices spiked. But, rather than being a short-term reaction, the emphasis on chicken has continued since that time, Mintel stated.

Chicken sandwiches (including turkey and subs, wraps, and burritos, as well as roll or bun sandwiches) have long been close to burgers in number and consumer popularity but, since 2010, chicken sandwiches have held their lead. The number of chicken sandwiches plateaued from 2011 to 2012, but all signs point to chicken maintaining its lead over burgers. Mintel said one example of why the researchers believe chicken will maintain the lead position is to consider the “barrage” of new menu items introduced by Burger King in January. The wave included Philly Original Chicken and Italian Original Chicken sandwiches as well as the introduction of new Chicken Nuggets.

As a result of chicken’s continued popularity, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and other burger chains “must keep an eye not only on each others’ marketing but also on KFC,” Mintel noted. KFC is expected to introduce new boneless chicken fillets on April 14. QSR burger chains should also monitor Chick-fil-A, Subway, and other chicken-sandwich competitors, too, the report said. McDonald’s executives have taken to referring to the chain’s share of the “Informal Eating Out” market, not just the burger category.

The turning point in the burgers versus chicken menu battle may have come in July 2011. That is when McDonald’s tested a spicy sandwich called the Zesty BBQ Cruncher. The hook was that, for the first time with McDonald’s, the sandwich could be ordered with choice of beef or chicken patty. Chicken had reached parity. Offering a sandwich in both beef and chicken versions has since become a QSR commonplace and burgers quietly slid to second place among sandwiches.

The “phenomenal” popularity of chicken wings as well as chicken nuggets, Chicken McBites, popcorn chicken, and other chicken snack items have combined to increase the total number of chicken items on QSR menus to 994 in fourth quarter 2012, more than three times the 323 burgers charted. Adding together beef QSR items (roast beef sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks, beef tacos, burgers, and other similar beef items) the total is 538, about one-half the chicken total. “It’s a losing battle for beef,” the Mintel report concluded. The BurgerBusiness.com report can be viewed here.