poultry processing
The poultry industry is banding together to discover the cause and a cure for 'woody breast' syndrome. 

Researchers around the country are looking for answers to a question that’s puzzling the global poultry industry – what is causing woody or wooden breast in broiler chickens? Woody breast is a muscle abnormality that is increasingly being found in some chicken breasts. The condition doesn’t negatively impact the animals’ welfare and poses no food safety or health risk to consumers when the product is eaten. However, the condition hardens some of the breast meat tissue and leaves the meat unpalatable.

According to a recent US Poultry & Egg Association (USPOULTRY) study, “The WB (woody breast) condition results in decreased fresh meat quality, inferior yield in processed products, diminished nutritional quality, potential product condemnations and reduced customer/consumer acceptance.”

Derek Emmerson, Ph.D., vice president of R&D at Huntsville, Alabama-based Aviagen, adds, “Woody breast has increased the number of consumer complaints regarding meat toughness. Most broiler processors have implemented routine quality control procedures to screen finished product and remove severely affected product.” 

Currently, the primary way the woody breast condition is detected is through inspection by quality assurance personnel on the processing line. This is time consuming and costly for processors. If affected breast meat is found it’s pulled and passed on to further processing, sometimes reworked into ground chicken for sausage and other products. With in-tact breast meat collecting a higher dollar value at retail and in foodservice, processors have a vested interest in getting to the bottom of this mysterious meat quality condition before more product is wasted.

“Companies that are producing chicken breast fillets are producing them for a specific purpose, whether that’s for retail sale or for a specific foodservice customer. If they [the processor] find woody breast they have to remove the product and use it for something else that’s not as profitable,” says John Glisson, Ph.D., vice president of research programs at USPOULTRY. “That premium product is valuable. If you start throwing it away, that’s a lot of money to waste.

“This condition is fairly significant to those companies that are producing large breast fillets. In fact, it’s something that’s very worrisome for the entire industry,” Glisson says. “We’re all very serious about trying to fix it.”

Researchers estimate the condition affects around 5 to 10 percent of the broiler population, however it is not connected to a particular breed.

“Woody breast is seen in all modern broiler genotypes and is an industry-wide problem which can affect consumer perception of chicken meat. The condition is observed at varying levels in all broiler producing companies. Causes of the condition are multi-factorial in nature – which means we will only solve the problem if we look for broad-based solutions,” says Bryan Fancher, Ph.D., Aviagen’s group vice president of global technical operations. “Woody breast has a small to moderate genetic component and the incidence and severity are significantly influenced by environmental and management components. If we work together as an industry on a number of these factors simultaneously, we are more likely to succeed in reducing and eliminating this myopathy.”