Bigger Chickens Bring a Tough New Problem: 'Woody Breast'

In its quest to grow ever-bigger chickens to meet growing demand for white meat, the food industry has hit an unexpected problem: The 'woody breast.' Here's what that is, why it's happening, and why you may already be consuming it without realizing the phenomenon even existed.
  1. The modern chicken is a big bird
    A growing share of broiler chickens—bred for meat, not to lay eggs—now can yield a pair of breast fillets that are heavier than an entire bird was a few decades ago. A rising number of those fillets are laced with hard fibers in a condition the industry calls woody breast. It poses no threat to human health, but it degrades the texture of the meat. Roughly 5% to 10% of the boneless breast fillets sold world-wide are affected, and the meat is also “gummy.”
  2. Seriously, these birds are huge
    Over the past 50 years, average chicken weights in the U.S. have roughly doubled, while the time it takes for birds for pack on the pounds has been cut in half. In 1965, a 3.5 pound bird took 63 days to get to market. In 2015, average birds weighed 6.2 pounds in 48 days, according to Agri Stats Inc. and the National Chicken Council industry group. Many companies are now growing chickens to 10 pounds or larger.
  3. Why is 'woody breast' happening?
    The stiff muscle condition tends to get more severe in the flocks of older, heavier chickens, and the problem is difficult to detect in live animals, showing up only after birds have been killed, portioned and deboned, researchers and companies say. It isn’t clear whether birds are running into the biological limits of their fast-growing genes, or if issues with nutrition or how they are raised are behind the conditions, scientists say.
  4. Fibrous meat not the only issue for factory farmers
    Woody breast is similar to other disorders the industry has struggled to contain, including “white striping,” which appears in pale parallel lines of fat across fillets. Green muscle disease, which causes discoloration due to hemorrhages in the muscle, is also showing up in turkey and chicken breasts more often.
  5. Are you eating 'woody breast' now?
    The effects of woody breast can be so subtle as to go unnoticed by home cooks. Its cause isn’t known, but the condition has emerged in the U.S., Spain, the U.K., Brazil and elsewhere. Woody breast is found in less than 5% of the supply of boneless breast meat at its plants. If found, affected meat is pulled from the line, sold at a discount and then further processed or ground for products like chicken sausage.
  6. What is being done about 'woody breast'
    Sanderson Farms Chief Financial Officer Mike Cockrell said the company found out about the issue through complaints from restaurant and retail customers about a year ago. He said the Laurel, Miss.-based company now has employees in processing plants feel every piece of boneless, skinless breast for the presence of woody breast, though the cost of dealing with the problem is immaterial. “It feels like my thigh when I get a cramp playing tennis, there’s a knot in the meat,” said Mr. Cockrell.