By Katie Keiger
Poultry Times staff
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Woody breast syndrome has been proven in a recent study not to be a food safety risk, other than to the taste buds of consumers. Still, the problem is worth researchers looking into before more severely harms the poultry industry.
The defect is isolated to the chicken breast meat and, like the name suggests, causes the meat to taste woody and stringy, some experts describe the texture as being "gummy". The reason for the condition is not completely known, but scientists do have some clues.
The American Association of Avian Pathologist (AAAP) reported that inadequate blood supply to the tissues, a lower rate of blood supply and a decline in metabolic waste-product removal from the muscles in the form of carbon dioxide and lactic acid is likely the all involved in the creation of the condition. The blood supply issue can be contributed possibly to birds suddenly overstretching their wing muscles or muscle spasms.
Many problems in the poultry industry have been solved or are in the process of being solved through genetic research and selective breeding. The National Chicken Council has noted that the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, as well as scientists at several universities are working on research projects to understand the disease.
Tom Super, NCC's senior vice president of communications, has said, "the industry and consumers alike have become aware of a muscle abnormality in chicken meat (commonly known as 'woody breast') that causes breast muscles to be hard to the touch, often pale in color with poor quality texture. It affects a very small percentage of the chickens we raise, but does not negatively impact them from a welfare standpoint. In addition, there are no food safety or health concerns for consumers because of this muscle condition."
"The exact cause is not known, so industry has embarked on research to determine the exact causes, as well as possible solutions to this quality issue," Super said. "Through the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, in conjunction with geneticists, veterinarians and animal scientists, the industry is funding more than a quarter of a million dollars on four separate research projects at independent universities and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service to understand the root cause of this muscle condition and remediate it as soon as possible."
One university has already made some progress in the research of woody breast. The University of Delaware's research team being led by Behnam Abasht, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Food Sciences in the university's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, have been studying chicken breast muscles and the genetic components of them.
"What we found is that there may be localized hypoxia — a lower oxygen concentration in the affected tissues. In addition, our findings strongly suggest presence of oxidative stress — when free radicals build up and there aren't enough antioxidants to detoxify them — as well as an increase in calcium in the tissue cells," Abasht said.
For the benefit of consumers, some producers are starting to sell the affected breast meat at lower prices. There are ways for buyers to identify the disease just by observing for signs in the chicken breast.
"Chicken companies have employees in processing plants looking at every piece of breast meat for any quality issue, in addition to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service personnel that inspect chicken for issues that could impact food safety and wholesomeness," Super added.
In a report by the Wall Street Journal, it was noted that only ten percent of breast meat has woody breast, but it can be detected by looking for pale meat with bulging areas. White stripes on the meat are also indicative of texture and taste problems in the meat. Also, chickens weighing more than nine pounds seem to be more likely to have woody breast syndrome.