With chicken occupying a top position in protein meals for Americans, Canadians, and others – the average consumer in the United States eats about 95 lbs. of chicken a year -- a great priority for the industry is to make sure there are no threats or problems. One persistent problem the industry has been dealing with for several years is woody breast syndrome.

Woody breast is a quality issue in chicken meat stemming from a muscle abnormality. It’s been found in a small percentage of chicken meat in the United States. It does not create any food safety or health concerns for the people who eat the chicken, and the welfare of the chicken itself is not negatively impacted by the condition. But the condition causes chicken breast meat to be “hard” to the touch, and often pale in color with poor quality texture, which can be a turnoff to customers.

As a result, it’s a condition chicken processors don’t want to find in their chicken products or unknowingly pass on to retail or foodservice customers. But thanks to research being done at Auburn Univ., in Auburn, Alabama, funded by USPOULTRY and the USPOULTRY Foundation, a method has been developed and validated to rapidly detect woody breast in fillets. The chickens containing woody breast can then be removed and used for value-added chicken products.

Amit Morey, Ph.D., assistant professor of poultry science at Auburn, one of the largest poultry science departments in the US, has discovered through his research a way to detect woody breast in broiler fillets using a handheld device. This device can be used in poultry plants, enabling processors to identify the poultry meat with this condition.

“The causes of woody breast are not known for sure at this point, but it seems to have begun with the trend in the industry to produce larger and faster-growing birds,” Morey says.

Working with other researchers, Morey found that a handheld bio-electric impedance device could detect fillets affected with woody breast and differentiate them from fillets not affected by the condition. “We were looking at different methods to find woody breast, but many of them were lab-based and time consuming. I was doing MRI analyses of fillets. I found excess water pooled in fillets when woody breast was present. I thought, if these fillets have extra water, there would be different electrical properties in the meat. Also, a different conductivity resistance. The handheld device has two sets of electrodes that are used to examine the broiler fillets.

“We found evaluation of woody breast could be accomplished by analyzing the electrical properties in the meat,” Morey reports. “When we used this tool on the fillets, there was a much more accurate finding of woody breast fillets. This tool and method can be used by personnel in processing plants to sort regular fillets from woody breast fillets, resulting in a much more accurate differentiation between regular fillets and woody breast fillets than can be achieved by only visually inspecting the fillets.”

Amit Morey, Ph.D., led the development of a hand-held device that will help processors identify product with woody breast syndrome.

Maintaining quality

And while FSIS inspectors are tasked with the job of focusing on food safety issues in plants, plant personnel are responsible for focusing on quality issues, like woody breast. “But sometimes mistakes can be made in the evaluation of the broiler fillets, so this device will make the evaluations much more accurate,” Morey says.

“By doing this, the quality of the chicken meat can be determined before it’s distributed, whether to retail, foodservice or other customers.” He adds that woody breast chickens are not lost or wasted, but can be processed further, such as into nuggets, ground chicken or to uses other than fillets or other chicken parts. He emphasized woody breast is strictly a quality issue. “Woody breast is not a health or food safety concern, and it does not hurt the health of the chicken itself,” Morey says.

The Auburn Univ. poultry science professor says his research really began moving ahead after he got in touch with Certified Quality Foods/Seafood Analytics, a food quality analytics company in Clinton Township, Michigan.

“They have a device they use to detect electrical properties in fish. The device can make determinations of the shelf life in fish, whether the fish was previously frozen or not, and other factors having to do with seafood quality,” Morey explains. “I thought it would be easier to use something like this because there’s a machine that already exists. But the question was, could this machine be adapted for our purposes? So that’s how we started our research, to see if it could be adapted for use in poultry, and if it would detect electrical properties and conductivity in broiler breast meat.”

The machine itself is like what’s used to examine fish in the seafood industry. But the electrical properties and the equations needed to differentiate between normal chicken fillets and woody breast fillets are not the same. “There are differences in different types of meat,” Morey points out. “The conditions are different. They work strictly with seafood – salmon, halibut, and other types of fish.”

So, the Auburn poultry science researcher worked with scientists at CQ. “We thought it was much better to do this, and a much better use of our time, than to spend another five years trying to come up with another machine or tool, if this would work as long as we determine the equations and electrical properties and conductivity for woody breasts in broiler fillets.” CQ makes the equipment. Morey creates the equations for the equipment, which must be refined for each poultry plant, because each plant is different.

The machines are being used right now by poultry companies in their processing plants. They’ve been in use for about a year. They’re also being used to determine the trends in woody breast occurrence, with birds from multiple flocks being examined.

Research also continues into the woody breast condition itself – what causes it, and how it can be prevented. The industry and universities with poultry science departments also debate the merits versus the disadvantages of going back to raising smaller birds, but point to the higher product costs that would result. “The problem is, the industry would have to grow many more chickens, also requiring many more chicken houses,” Morey says.

So far the condition seems to be limited to chicken. Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing at the National Turkey Federation, says the association has not had reports of this issue in turkey. “It’s certainly something we will monitor closely,” she notes.

Morey says research continues into what sets off the condition, possible changes to production practices, and developing ways to predict woody breast.