Researcher tackles problem of toughness in white meat chicken
June 22, 2018
By Mary Hightower
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Division of Agriculture researcher looking at detecting quality defects in chicken breast meat
- Owens also seeking alternative food uses for less-than-perfect breast meat
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – As the popularity of white meat chicken has risen, so have instances of tough, flaky and hard filets known as “woody” breast meat. Why that happens and how to detect and process the meat is a puzzle Casey Owens Hanning is working to solve.
Owens, a poultry scientist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, says “woodiness” is a problem that has appeared in the last four to five years and may be related to increased growth rates and other genetic or production improvements in broilers.
The woodiness is more common in larger birds of 8-9 pounds versus a 6-7-pound bird. One theory is that the fast-growing birds may be producing muscle faster than the blood vessels can support them, leading to muscle damage and collagen being deposited.
She’s quick to note that the meat is safe to eat, but with changes in composition such as increased collagen, there can be quality issues when cooking.
“From a cooking perspective, it can create a complex texture,” Owens said. The meat can be fibrous and where there’s more connective tissue, it “can have a flaky texture that some people have equated with the flakiness in fish.”
“Sometimes it can have a rubbery, tough and some even term it ‘crunchy,’ texture that results when you bite through different layers within that meat,” she said. “It’s a texture that can also result in a drier product when cooked.”
This meat is also a problem considering that marinated meats are a hot grocery item for convenience-minded consumers. There’s no measuring or buying of herbs and spices. The flavor is already in the meat.
“In the poultry industry, there’s a lot of marination,” Owens said. “However, the muscle is not retaining that marinade.”
Marination works because functional ingredients such as salt help the muscle protein retain more moisture. Fewer muscle fibers mean there’s less moisture retention. That translates to less flavorful meat and more shrinkage for the consumer and losses for the producer because the marinade is just draining out of the meat.
“We have been looking at means to help detect woody breasts in the field and have been looking at a visual way to grade the carcasses to predict woodiness in the filets,” she said. “We have a patent pending on that process.”
Owens and her collaborators are also working on other methods of detection. “We initially used a tactile evaluation – feeling the product. It has a real firmness, sometimes it’s very hard.”
However, Owens is out to develop a more objective means of evaluating the meat using instruments, whether it’s measuring shear or compression properties.
Another facet of her research is finding other uses for this white meat.
“Breast meat sandwiches are very popular, but this hard and woody meat can be less appealing to consumers,” she said. “We are asking could this tougher and chewier meat be diverted to another product? Could it go into nuggets or patties or sausages if you were able to mix it with other meat?”
Owens has been working on these quality issues in poultry for the last four to five years. Before working on the woody breast issue, she worked on “white striping,” in which there is more fat infiltrating the muscle fibers creating the look of white strips.
“White striping causes a similar problem with water-holding capacity, but the texture is not as affected as in woody breasts,” she said. “There are some similar in characteristics and causes, but the two are independent of one another.”
Other poultry scientists are working the problem from the production end; does slaughter age matter? Is it genetic?
“It’s an issue that everyone wants resolved,” she said.
To learn more about food science research in Arkansas, visit https://food-science.uark.edu/food-science-research/index.php.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service