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Monday February 19, 2018

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..

Eating poor is the new status symbol

"Diseases of affluence," they are called, the so-called Western-World diseases caused by stuffing ourselves with too much sugar, red meat and other rich food, and working it off with too little hard labor: obesity, heart disease, acquired diabetes, high blood pressure and more. As a society, we are mortgaging our health to squander our relative wealth on modern, processed diets bought from large agribusiness companies controlled by rich, fat white guys. And the antidote, according to the new food movement? Eat simpler, eat organic, eat local, eat non-GMO, eat paleo, eat socially responsibly, eat closer to the land, eat brown, eat Native American. In short, go back to eating like we used to eat when we were too poor as a society to be obsessed with keeping up with the gastronomical Joneses.

But what if it's less about the health than it is about the show? Has eating poor become the new symbol of affluence?

Texas A&M University ag economists tested a sample of 201 non-students from a midsized college town, selected by local newspaper advertisement in order to mirror the typical grocery shopper. They then gave participants a battery of survey questions regarding their shopping behavior as it relates to feelings of prestige, prominence and social status, in order to rank them on a well-accepted marketing scale that classifies shoppers along a continuum from those who buy simply to satisfy basic needs to those who buy just to show off. As the researchers anticipated based on other such work, the group broke along typical lines:

  • About seven in 10 were "utilitarian buyers," those who make buying decisions based on functionality and care little about status symbols.
  • Some 12 percent were "ambitious shoppers," those with relatively lowest incomes who hope to mimic the rich by spending more.
  • The "affluent elitist" comprised a little over 9 percent of the participants, those who are relatively most wealthy and are the most likely to spend on expensive luxury brands to feel good about themselves.
  • The final 9 percent were "prestige lovers," shoppers who are impressed by buying high-priced products, even within relatively inexpensive categories, and show the most concern that buying the low-end item might make them look cheap.

The researchers then asked participants to bid in a silent auction to buy lettuce and spinach that was labeled as either conventionally grown, hydroponically grown or organically grown. The meaning of each category was explained in detail to participants. They applied sophisticated statistical modeling to guage the willingness of shoppers in each of the categories to pay for each type of food. They found:

  • Average willingness to pay for all products was lowest among the utilitarian buyers. The other three classes which demonstrated tendancies toward conspicuous consumption were each more willing to pay higher prices across all categories.
  • The prestige lovers class showed a significant willingness to pay a premium for organic lettuce that, although small, was consistent with everyone in the class. The researchers believe this effect is because prestige lovers, who are also most likely to be Millenials who regularly use social media to boost their status, associate organic food with prestige.
  • The same effect on willingness to pay from the labelling information treatment was seen in the affluent elitist and ambitious shopper classes, to a larger degree although less consistently. Although both classes bid up their willingness to pay after learning about the production methods, the higher income levels of the affluent elitists led to higher premiums than the ambitious shoppers, suggesting ambitious shoppers may want the status of organic lettuce but can't afford it. The relative low income, high regard for prestige and higher willingness to pay across all products for the ambitious shopper suggests they are using food purchases to "buy their way up" in social status.
  • The bottom line: All three categories of conspicuous consumers in the experiment responded to labeling information, suggesting grocers may be able to boost premium prices of status-conscious shoppers through customer education and marketing.

If it's true that the new ethical eating is simply conspicous consumption, and that, as VOGUE writes, "Wellness has become an important part of the luxury lifestyle... Eating right can give the privileged class a sense of moral superiority," how does the grocer communicate that basic-food luxury? Consider how you might manage your organics bin within these basic tenents of marketing luxury goods, from Jean-Noël Kapferer, author of Strategic Brand Management, and Vincent Bastien, former CEO of Louis Vuitton Malletier and author of The Luxury Strategy:

Remember, you don't launch luxury brands, you build them progressively. Successfully marketing luxury begins with understanding what a luxury brand is, and isn't, and then steadily promoting those traits. "In order for conspicuous consumption to exist, there is a need for others to be aware of the purchase so that it signals status," the Texas A&M study authors write. "Consumers evaluate conspicuous goods based on quality attributes and the prestige and social status derived from consuming them." Promoting organic and local as luxury depends on maintaining and building what the scholars call "socially constructed preciousness."

Feed the need. Despite the fact all boats in our society are floating higher with growing average afflence and some high-profile disavowal of riches, man's base need for some form of social stratification has not disappeared, Kapferer and Bastien argue. People still feel it vital to know their place in society, and luxury has the fundamental function of creating and reinforcing that stratification.

Luxury is where you find it. As the relatively small but consistent price premiums in the A&M study demonstrate, conspicuous luxury doesn't necessarily mean expensive. "Anything that can be a social signifier can become a luxury," according to Kapferer and Bastien. "By the same token, anything that ceases to be a social signifier loses its luxury status." Case in point: backyard swimming pools. Promotion and merchandising for organic products should reinforce the elements that make their purchase such social signifiers. It's the preciousness that matters, preciousness that results from making food harder, not easier to acquire, by placing often artificial constraints on its production: antibiotic-free, locally grown, animal-welfare-friendly, to name just a few.

Keep them believing. "No luxury brand can hope to survive if it relies purely on clients who are only interested in reputed signs of recognition, the symbol rather than the substance," say Kapferer and Bastien. Luxury customers will abandon you as soon as they lose faith in the symbol, which could explain the growing impatience by former apostles with organic that has been co-opted from the small, independent farmer by large corporations.

Obey the circle of fashion. Luxury is closely tied to fashion, they suggest, and fashion plays a key role in our social life by "recreating the rhythm of the seasons that was done away with by urbanisation." Can you say "Eat Seasonably?"

Lead, don't follow. In traditional marketing, the marketing duo write, client is king. Consumer package goods put the customer at the heart of the business and listen constantly to customers. The luxury brand, on the other hand, springs from the creator's mind, often driven by vision that borders on eccentric. Can you think of a better explanation for the growing popularity of biodynamic food, farming that counsels growing food according to the star alignment and fertilizing crops by burying amputated cow's horns filled with fermented manure in fields. "Don’ t look for equality with your clients," Kapferer and Bastien counsel. "...the brand must always dominate its client. As a result, a certain distance is preserved that is not supercilious or aloof, but nevertheless maintains an aura of mystery."

Be difficult to buy. "The luxury brand is something that has to be earned," they write. "The greater the inaccessibility–whether actual or most often virtual–the greater the desire." What better description of the local, sustainable, community supported agriculture movement? Notes University of Wisconsin professor Craig Thompson: If you set out to purposely design a food system that offered only limited selection, at limited times of the year, at higher prices, determined largely by what the producer had to sell rather than what the customer wanted, pushing items you often aren't familiar with and don't know how to use, you couldn't do better than today's alternative food systems. It's those very inaccessibilities of farmers markets compared to supermarkets that draw shoppers to be there, he says. 

Where nobody is a food expert, and everybody is

If the election of Donald Trump and the conversative-populist movement that unpredictably brought him to office accomplishes nothing else, it stands to even further weaken the average American's trust in traditional institutions. For better or for worse, according to an annual Gallup poll, less than a third of Americans on average say they have either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in 14 traditional institutions, including the military, the police, the church, the medical system, the presidency, the supreme court, public schools, banks, organized labor , the criminal justice syste, TV news, newspapers, big business and Congress. It is the third straight year in a row Gallup has reported that phenomenon. But Trumpism is less the cause than the result—Congress, banks, organized religion and the news media have all suffered a decline in public trust for a decade now.

And the result for 2017 and beyond: Absent those trustworthy institutions, everyone has now become his own food and farming expert. Expect this often unsettling trend to continue, affecting your food sales. Witness:

Mercola, Food Babe and David Wolfe. Joseph Mercola, the 61-year old osteopathic physician, natural-foods purveyor, and founder and video star of Mercola Health Resources, who once famously advised his readers to avoid grocery stores if they want healthy food, shook off a mid-April 2016 $5.3 million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over false-advertising accusations. According to the Chicago Tribune, Mercola sold tanning beds for up to $4,000 apiece by reassuring consumers not only were they not harmful, but in fact actually reduced their chances of getting cancer. Mercola's website empire continues to flourish, though, offering unsound advice on health issues from vaccination to flouride in water to organic food. By one estimate, his site continues to attract an estimated 5 million to 7 million visits monthly. And he still lists more than a quarter million Twitter followers and 1.5 million Facebook followers.

Similarly, Vani Hari, a.k.a. "Food Babe," the internet blogger who grew a guilty penchant for fast food and disdain for science into an estimated 3 million viewers and a best-selling book deal, and David Wolfe, informercial star turned "rock star of the superfoods and longevity universe" whose Facebook following now outnumbers the entire state of Nebraska five times over, continue to flourish by pandering to the worst suspicions about food and health.

Critical media—gone. Whether you love or hate the mass media that the Trump movement has so successfully positioned as disloyal opposition, there's little arguing that business has been so economically hollowed out that meaningful journalism is on the ropes. The information vaccuum being created is being filled by more partisan sources, often without being recognized as such. One recent example: The National Grocers Association's Education and Leadership Weekly newsletter in January included the story "Should we be labeling genetically modified foods?" Although an important question, and one Farmer Goes to Market has examined in the past, the "custom-content" story written for NGA members based its reporting on questionable claims from an activist organization with no balanced critique of the dubious science behind those claims. Get ready for more of that style of advocacy journalism disguised as news.

Rogue agency Twitter feeds. In testament to the dilution of trust in institutions, a curious phenonomen accompanying Trump's election starkly illustrates even the government institutions themselves no longer trust their own authority. President Trump's reported attempts to put a "gag order" on agencies including USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency—reports which themselves now appear to be "fake news"—spawned "resistance teams" of agency scientists and other employees who took to their own Twitter feeds to post "unofficial" discussions of issues they believed were being repressed by the new administration, from climate change to food and drug issues.

Sustainability according to the marketing department. With little to no meaningful regulatory definition and an apparent public appetite to hear them—even if apparently no true consumer demand can be proven—the world of product claims about food justice, sustainability and health have become the Wild Wild West, where everyone's rushing to stake a claim. Case in point: The new HowGood label, which in the past three years has expanded its services into grocers in 26 states and more than 250 stores, including a highly visible Giant Foods pilot project. The 20-year-old system, which attempts to boil up to 70 different indicators down to a simple good/better/best labeling system, includes measures of pesticide use, fertilizer control and animal welfare. But it also includes more shadowy measures of packaging, "labor accountability," "reputation index," and simply how much information a company is willing to divulge to them.

Amid this trend toward the shattering and scattering of food authority lies some good news for the grocer, although it's a mixed blessing: Gallup's surveying does show Americans retain some trust in institutions, in particular, the military, the police and you—small businesses. So opportunity to lead exists. But the bad news is that it's not hard to squander that fragile trust. A recent survey shows almost half of consumers say they don't trust what food labels tell them. Today's food marketers trying to sell product claims are borrowing the grocer's credibility to do so, and if those claims don't live up to customer expectations, it could be that trusted retailer who ends up holding the bag.

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