Big Chicken

America’s Factory-Farmed Chickens Are Now Developing ‘Woody Breasts’

Maybe time for the other white meat.
Maybe time for the other white meat. Photo: Roman Märzinger/Westend61/Corbis

The poultry industry’s newest problem sounds like a textbook case of bad karma: Its billions of factory-farmed chickens are suddenly developing an array of strange muscle diseases that give meat a regrettably “gummy,” “elastic” taste. Producers have obviously spent years doing unnatural things to the 9 billion broilers they raise annually, among them using drugs that act like bird Miracle-Gro, causing today’s chickens to reach twice the size in half the time they did 50 years ago. (Breast meat alone is now heavier than the whole chicken used to be.) It’s hardly surprising, then, that meat is getting knotty and fibrous thanks to a defect called “woody breast.”

It poses no threat to humans (hooray?) but is definitely an assault on people’s mouths. One food scientist describes the texture as “more hard, and also more elastic, so you have to put more energy in to chew on this kind of meat.” Experts think between 5 and 10 percent of boneless breasts sold worldwide are affected, though the number appears to be growing. Other defects are also popping up in meat that sound equally unappetizing: There’s something called “white striping” in the breasts and thighs, or another thing called “green muscle disease” where hemorrhaged tissues cause funky coloration in the meat.

What’s the industry planning to do about these gross and inhumane-sounding problems? The answer right now is not much. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the defects anyway, but removing bad meat from the good is costly. Sanderson Farms, a large producer, was the only company that outlined any specific proactive actions to The Wall Street Journal — it says enough customers complained last year that employees now “feel every piece of boneless, skinless breast” for knots. Those pieces still get ground up into sausage or sold at discount, though, and nobody else even gave the paper the time of day when questioned about the texture of their giant birds’ meat. Earth’s second-largest meat producer, Tyson, allegedly doesn’t “have issues with so-called ‘woody breast,” if that’s at all comforting.


Factory Farming Now Causes ‘Woody Breasts’