Let's Reminisce: Creating a better chicken
By Jerry Lincecum
May 15, 2019
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Sixty years ago, as a teenager visiting an uncle who raised thousands of chickens in industrial-style broiler houses, I developed a thorough dislike for factory farming.  The deciding factor was observing (and smelling) the results of burning the beaks of baby chicks to prevent them from pecking one another to death.  On the other hand, I have eaten a lot of chicken that was produced on factory farms, and it has become obvious to me that in recent years, chickens have been genetically engineered to grow bigger.  In fact, some of todayfs broilers have such well endowed breasts that they can hardly walk.


According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, todayfs chickens grow much faster as well as bigger, and this has become a problem.  Chicken companies spent decades breeding birds to grow rapidly and develop large breast muscles. Now the industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the negative consequences, ranging from squishy fillets known as gspaghetti meath (because they pull apart easily), to leathery ones known as gwoody breast.h


My wife is a biology professor who used to teach courses in genetics, and she explained to me that that genetic engineering of this kind often has unforeseen and undesirable side effects.  The genetic selection that allows meat companies to raise a 6.3-pound bird in 47 days, roughly twice as fast as 50 years ago, results in the formation of breast muscles that have undesirable characteristics.


The good news is that the chicken industry produced a record 42 billion pounds of chicken nuggets, tenders and other products in 2018.  The bad news is that itfs now having to identify and divert breast fillets that are too tough, too squishy or too striped with bands of white tissue to sell in restaurants or grocery stores.


This is not just a simple case of gwe just have to tweak the process a little.h Spaghetti meat breast fillets that can be picked up and pulled apart by hand or punctured easily with a fingertip began appearing in 2015 and now can be detected in around 4% to 5% of breast meat samples, researchers said.  The stringy texture results from too-rapid growth.


White striping in commercially raised chickens first showed up around 2010, with woody breast appearing on the scene around 2013.  Remedies have proved elusive.  Meat scientists say they suspect the rapid growth rate of commercially raised chickens may lead breast muscle tissue to outgrow the oxygen supply provided by young chickensf developing circulatory systems, at which point muscle fibers can degrade. That can alter the density and texture of the meat.


Some fast-food chains have taken steps to reduce complaints from customers about toughness in their chicken sandwiches.  Two years ago one chain began shifting its chicken supply to smaller birds, even though they had to pay more for the meat.  Getting a more favorable response from customers was worth the cost.


Some chicken companies have begun slaughtering chickens at slightly younger ages to reduce the frequency of meat affected by woody breast. Meanwhile, the industry believes their high-tech breeding operations eventually will be able to minimize the problems through genetic selection. The quest for the gperfecth factory chicken is likely to take another few years.


Although I have friends who keep a few chickens in their backyard as egglayers, I donft expect a movement to begin raising frying chickens the way my mother did.  My memories of what it was like to wring their necks, pick the feathers off, and then cut up the carcass are enough to rule it out.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: