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What's really going on with chicken meat

Suddenly, it seems, the quality of U.S. poultry meat has gone to pot. For about 18 months, social media have repeated complaints over "newfound" problems with the quality of poultry, particularly high-margin whole breasts, including these conditions:

  • White striping. White fat striations in the meat running parallel to the muscle fibers.
  • Woody breast. A degeneration of the breast muscle that causes connective tissue to replace muscle, giving the meat a stiffer texture.
  • Green muscle disease. A condition caused by lack of blood supply in the live bird to the muscles forming the breast tender, it results in damage to the muscle similar to a bruise that can eventually cause the meat to take on a green tint.

What gives?

Although it's dangerous to ascribe social media trends to a single incident, it appears the attention dates back to a "scientific report" and PR campaign video by by the animal-welfare advocacy group Compassion in World Farming.

“While the specific causes of muscular disorders like [white striping] are still being researched, the vast majority of studies conducted thus far have found a correlation between fast growth, heavier weights, higher breast yield, and the development of myopathies in broilers,” the CIWF campaign claims. The YouTube video calling striping "a disease," that's "similar to muscular dystrophy in humans," implying eating chicken that shows the condition is a health risk for consumers.

"It kinda grosses me out," says one on-camera talent.

Minus the breathless alarmism, here's what we really know about these meat problems:

  • White striping. This relatively new condition in poultry breeding was first described in 2010 and is believed to be a genetic condition related to selecting breeding birds that grow fast. Despite allegations by the CWIF campaign that it causes poorer quality meat based on cherry-picking some limited studies, most of the scientific concensus is that striping doesn't make the meat less palatable or less nutritious. What it does do, however, is make the breast less pleasing to the consumer's eye, which as you would expect caused more than half of shoppers in a recent survey to pass it by. Researchers are still attempting to identify exactly what causes the condition, although we do know that it tends to occur more in heavier birds.
  • Woody breast. Woody breast may or may not be just another presentation of the same underlying condition causing white striping, but it does lead to worse meat quality beyond simple aesthetics. Scientific speculation suggests it might be a combination of lack of oxygen getting to the muscle tissue, matabolic stress, calcium levels in muscle tissue or muscle-fiber changes similar to those a bodybuilder undergoes during training. Whatever the cause, researchers do believe it's at least associated with purposely breeding birds to grow faster and develop relatively large breasts.
  • Green muscle disease.  First known as Oregon disease because it was studied at Oregon State when it first appeared in turkeys almost a half century ago, this condition is now believed to be appearing in broilers because the genetic selection for large breasts causes the bird's body to basically not leave enough room in its anatomy for the large muscles without choking them off, which causes the typical bruising.

Regardless of cause, most of the science agrees no credible evidence has yet been presented that any of the conditions contribute to the true underlying criticism of the CIWF campaign, that they cause the affected birds to suffer—a fact testified to by the reality that researchers can't accurately predict which birds are affected while they're alive. This latest campaign appears to be another manifestation of a new-media public relations technique that's becoming familiar in its predictability: Special-interest groups pushing for changes to food and farming practices in the name of sustainability, animal-welfare and food-justice are doing so via an end-run attack on meat quality and how broiler chickens are bred.

Launched in earnest by a November 2015 white paper by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, advocates have been urging large food companies to require their poultry suppliers purposely use chicken breeds that grow slower. The push to get large food companies to force chicken companies to slow down the growth rate of their birds is following the pattern that has taken "cage-free" egg production from fringe to mainstream in less than a decade. Backed by public relations campaigns by groups like Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit animal-rights group behind several recent undercover animal-cruelty videos which Farmer Goes to Market has reported on, they have slowly but surely pressured the retail chain to buy in. And they have officially claimed victory: Cage-free eggs are now inevitable.

Next up is the so-called "slow chicken" movement. Since March 2016, a string of large retailers have announced they would agree to require the new standards of their suppliers by a future date, saying they would demand their chicken suppliers start breeding for slower growth

Meanwhile, a study released by the National Chicken Council two days ahead of the latest announcement argues the environmental, economic and sustainability implications of raising slower-growing chickens would be negative, not positive. If only one-third of broiler chicken producers switched to a slower-growing breed, NCC's analysis predicts, nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced. That increase in the chicken population would demand an equally tremendous increase in water, land and fuel consumption.

Get ready to be 'volunteered' into the movement to commit to slow-growing chicken, the same way you've volunteered to go to cage-free eggs. If you get campaign pressure applied on your store, we'd like to hear from you. Leave a comment (anonymous is OK), or send us an This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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