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Fast-food 'natural' chicken takes wing on safety fears

USA Today, February 4, 2005

Fast food's next better-for-you twist has wings: "natural" chicken.

That's chicken with no additives. Some say it's tastier and healthier. It's certainly pricier. Arby's is about to announce plans to be the first national fast-food chain to sell only natural chicken. The move comes at a time when chicken of all types has emerged as fast food's hottest growth area.

More fast-foodies are expected to follow Arby's. Two fast-casual chains, Panera Bread and Chipotle, are testing natural chicken. A few regional chains have sold it for years, including Chick-fil-A and Chicken Out.

The label "natural" means the food contains no hormones, antibiotics or artificial ingredients and is "minimally" processed, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's less stringent than rules for "organic" -- and easier for fast-food chains to accommodate.

Growing consumer interest in natural chicken and other natural meats has one key driver: safety concerns. Health concerns about everything from mad cow disease to E. coli bacteria have consumers seeking higher-quality meat, even at a fast-food joint.

"Consumers want more information about what's going on with the food they eat," says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at WD Partners, a restaurant development firm.

Buying natural might be most useful for folks who eat lots of chicken, says Robyn Flipse, a dietitian in Ocean, N.J. "It lessens the risk of exposure to antibiotics, hormones and preservatives."

Arby's plans to sell it systemwide by year's end. "We see a general trend toward better diet and overall wellness," says Debbie Pike, chief marketing officer for Arby's Franchise Association, which oversees the 3,450 stores' marketing.

Arby's is testing natural chicken -- called "All Chicken Chicken" -- in sandwiches and salads in Michigan, Florida, South Carolina and Ohio.

"We're not making a claim that Arby's is the natural restaurant," Pike says. "But we're responding to how people shop and eat."

The problem as more chains join in might be finding enough natural chicken. Others also responding:

  • Panera Bread. The sandwich chain began testing natural chicken about a year ago. In November, it rolled out natural chicken systemwide in some sandwiches and salads. And it eventually plans to sell only natural chicken, says Scott Davis, chief concept officer.

Because the natural chicken costs Panera more, it is charging about 25 cents more for dishes made with it.

  • Chipotle. The Mexican chain sells natural chicken in the Washington area, New York and parts of Atlanta and Ohio. In some -- but not all -- areas, it charges about 25 cents more for the dishes.