Cracking the code on chicken meat: Why woody breast and white striping are a sign of poor farming practices

It is common knowledge that chicken meat tops the list when it comes to food poisoning. This is well documented, with many products carrying a warning on how to prepare them.

But recently, some other issues with chicken meat have come to the attention of many shoppers, with photos and complaints circulating online of woody breast, white striping and even chicken feet with burn marks. 

So what is going on? Kiwis noticing meat with these issues on the supermarket shelves has given people pause, presenting a chance to learn more about the sad reality of chickens bred for meat in New Zealand.

Have you found your chicken meat hard to eat or rubbery?

A post on the New Zealand subReddit earlier this year asked about what they described as a rough and fibrous texture in chicken meat.

Anyone else experienced super tough, over-sized chicken breast from the supermarket?
A few times recently we’ve bought chicken breast from the supermarket and the size of them has been abnormally enormous. Not a problem by itself, but when diced and cooked in a pan for a curry or whatever, rather than the normal, soft texture of chicken it’s rough and fibrous, like tearing through overcooked beef. I googled it and found some US articles talking about “woody chicken breast”, a phenomenon that seems to be a side effect of farming practises there… is that what we’re dealing with here? It’s avoidable if shopping in person (just buy the smaller ones) but for delivery or click and collect you never know if you’re going to get the super sized ones.

This phenomenon is a cause for concern and many readers replied to the post and shared similar experiences. Some even expressed concern about the types of farming practices that have resulted in these abnormalities. 

One study found that the prevalence of woody breast increased from 5% in 2012 to almost one third (29%) in 2015. New Zealand was listed as one of the countries that has the majority of cases.

What is woody breast syndrome?

Woody breast is a myopathy/muscle disease in the muscle of chicken. Essentially, it’s a disorder where the chicken’s muscle fibres don’t function properly, leading to a hard, rubbery texture in the meat.

The abnormal development of the muscle fibres is what leads to the hard consistency after death.

Is woody breast the same as white striping? What is white striping?

Four images of chicken breasts labelled score 0 to score 3. Score 1 - 3 show an increase in 'white stripes' on the breast tissue.
White stripping. Image credit: The Humane League

White striping is another muscle diseases that affects the tissues of chickens, especially the breast. It’s seen as small white stripes. Evidence of this disease is seen on supermarket shelves here, as well as overseas.

The underdeveloped organs of abnormally fast-growing chicken breeds often struggle to pump enough oxygen. As a result, their muscles become inflamed. The increase in collagen and fat in the muscles results in distinctive white stripes that look like scars and are tough and fibrous.

White striping has been mistaken for woody breast, but they are different muscle diseases, with white stripping resulting when fat replaces muscle tissues.

What does woody breast mean for chickens?

A wide angle image of a chicken shed. There are thousands of white chickens crammed together and the ground isn't visible. In a red circle on the lefthand side of the image is a close up on one chicken. She is stuck on her back, you can see her unnaturally large breast tissue is protruding upwards.
A New Zealand Chicken Farm. Image credits: Farmwatch

The exact cause of the syndrome is unknown, but it is more common in breeds of chickens that have been bred to grow abnormally fast.

Reporting of this phenomenon has significantly increased in recent years, suggesting that that it is modern breeding and farming practices causing it.

It is unsurprising that 50 years of highly selective breeding has changed chickens. As illustrated in this graphic, chickens bred for meat now grow unnaturally fast and unnaturally large, to be slaughtered at just five to six weeks old.

The unnatural growth adds stress to the chicken’s body, especially because their breast can grow so large causing them to be top-heavy. Some over balance and get trapped on their back, unable to reach food or water. Being just a few weeks old, their baby legs and organs struggle under the unhealthy weight.

This problem goes right to the ‘heart’ of their genetics, with lab experiments finding woody breast syndrome in chickens as young as one week.

White striping and woody breast are clearly meat quality issues, as well as diseases, but the pain or discomfort to the birds caused is still undetermined. Chickens affected with woody breast, struggle to right themselves when they fall over, are generally less active, and have mobility issues. Also, the degenerative process that leads to breast diseases in chickens is similar to Duchenne muscular dystrophy in humans, a painful and debilitating condition. It may be possible that chickens raised for meat who develop white striping experience a similar kind of pain and discomfort.

When profits are prioritised over animal welfare, it is lose/lose.

Is chicken with woody breast and/or white striping dangerous to eat?

While there isn’t a known risk to human health from eating chicken meat with woody breast or while striping, these muscle diseases do lower the quality of the meat. Affected meat has been described in online discussions as tough, rubbery, dense, and stringy. They are also a sign that the chickens have been grown in a way that has harmed their health.

What does the science say?

There have been numerous studies looking at the causes and frequency of these muscle diseases, and also linking the abnormal fast-growth of the breeds used currently in New Zealand and elsewhere, to these diseases. In 2021, scientists from the University of Guelph published research that specifically compared the rate and severity of muscle diseases in “conventional breeds”— the unhealthy, fast-growing breeds currently used in commercial farming – to that in healthier, slower-growing breeds. They concluded that selection for accelerated growth rate and high breast yield in broiler chickens have been associated with an increase in myopathies, including wooden breast and white striping.

What about more naturally growing chickens?

In New Zealand, we are making progress to improve chicken welfare by using more naturally growing breeds and treating them better. Healthier breeds are shown to have less instances of the meat being condemned because of damage and other animal welfare problems.

These birds are farmed to meet the Better Chicken Commitment, a set of science-based, higher welfare standards for chickens farmed for meat, is supported by Animals Aotearoa, the SPCA, Vets for Animal Welfare Aotearoa, Compassion in World Farming and 11 other local and international animal welfare organisations.

Worldwide, over 600 companies are signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment standards. Here in New Zealand, eight food brands have already signed up including meal kit HelloFresh, pizza chain Domino’s and the two biggest café chains Columbus Coffee and The Coffee Club. 

Other meat quality issues/ammonia burns

Recently, another concerning animal welfare problem was spotted in the chicken meat aisle and posted in a New Zealand chicken Facebook group.

A screenshot from a Facebook group post. Text reads "absolutely disgusted to see these at PaknSave. These poor chickens had terrible bumble foot infections and I wonder whether the idiot humans eating them now they're eating a nice big staph infection"
Three images below show a packet of chicken feet from a chicken aisle. Two of the feet have large black burns on the foot pad.

The social media user had spotted large black marks on the hocks (ankles) and feet of chickens (initially mistaken for infections). Proudly advertised as “New Zealand chicken feet”, these feet were showing another shocking result of current industry practises. Usually these black marks are not seen because the legs are removed above the hock, before the chickens end up on the shelves.

The black marks on the feet and hocks are actually ammonia burns. These are common on chickens bred for meat for two compounding reasons:

  1. There are so many chickens in each shed (think upwards of 36,000) meaning there is a lot of excrement. The litter is never changed throughout their lives, and the chickens are left living in their own waste.
  2. Because of their large size and abnormal growth, these birds spend a lot of their time sitting (in all that excrement!). Their size and the weakness of their underdeveloped leg muscles, makes it difficult for them to stand, and when they do, they will often take just one or two steps before collapsing/plopping back down.

How to avoid bad chicken meat?

Many people choose not to eat chicken because of the significant suffering involved, and some to avoid the meat quality and food hygiene risks from chicken meat.

If you’d like to find out more about replacing chicken in your diet, you can check out our resources on chicken-free alternatives and plant-based eating.

Meanwhile, while many people still do choose to eat chicken meat, we’re working with food brands across the country to improve the welfare of the birds on commercial farms. Help us by supporting our latest campaign.

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