Thursday, March 14, 2019

Chicken industry spends big to fix tough or squishy breasts

"Chicken companies spent decades breeding birds to grow rapidly and develop large breast muscles," Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Now the industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the consequences ranging from squishy fillets known as 'spaghetti meat,' because they pull apart easily, to leathery ones known as 'woody breast'."

There's some evidence that the traits, which pose no risk to consumers, are side effects of selecting for hens that grow to slaughter weight twice as quickly as hens 50 years ago. But researchers and breeders are still trying to figure out the exactly what led to the traits. "While there are some factors linked to the occurrence—including bird weight, feed ingredients and the time of year the bird is grown—even a combination of these factors will not necessarily produce the same issues consistently," a Tyson Foods spokesperson told Bunge. Tyson owns Cobb-Vantress, one of the two breeding firms that supply most of the breeding stock for the world's chicken companies. 

It's in the poultry industry's best interests to figure out what causes the substandard chicken breasts, since culling them is a considerable expense. 'Spaghetti meat' can be found in up to 5 percent of breast samples. 'Woody' meat is present in about 10 percent, and white striping occurs in about 30 percent, researchers found. None of these traits was widespread before 2010, but major chicken producers are now spending an estimated $200 million annually to find and quash them. And the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association has spent $500,000 over the past three years on research to find the cause of the problems and identify nutrients that could lessen them, Bunge reports. 

Some restaurants and grocery chains, like Wendy's and Whole Foods, have switched to buying slower-growing chickens to improve quality. The smaller chickens cost more, but a Wendy's spokesperson told Bunge that the switch was worth it; customer comments improved.

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