Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Say Goodbye to Fatter Chickens as Producers Avoid ‘Woody’ Meat

  • Sanderson Farms CEO says weights gains will slow in 2017
  • Texture results from genetics, but appears worse in big birds

When it comes to chickens, 2017 could mean juicier -- but maybe not plumper.

Sanderson Farms Inc., the third-largest U.S. processor of the birds, says bird weight-gains could start slowing. After decades of fattening up their chickens, some producers are now starting to reduce weights to avoid breast meat that has a “woody” texture, said Joe Sanderson Jr., the chief executive officer of Laurel, Mississippi-based Sanderson. The problematic texture is a result of genetics, but the issue appears to be worse in heavier birds, he said.

“In 2017, you will not see increases in live weights you’ve seen the last couple of years,” Sanderson said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “The increase is going to slow.”

Smaller birds would mark a stark reversal from years of plumper poultry. U.S. chickens raised for meat weighed 6.24 pounds (2.83 kilograms) on average in 2015, almost doubling from 1955 and more than tripling from 1925, according to the National Chicken Council website. Heavier animals had been favored as a way to boost production and revenue.

Tough Texture

But the bigger birds meant that so-called woody breast, which describes the hard texture and not the taste or quality of the meat, was being found more frequently, Sanderson said, while declining to identify the companies that are cutting weights. Sanderson is holding its weights steady.

The tougher texture was found in as much as 5 percent of the boneless breast-meat at the company’s big bird deboning plants, Sanderson said. The plants account for about 28 percent of Sanderson’s total live-weight. Woody breast isn’t a health or food-safety concern, and the exact cause is unknown, according to the National Chicken Council.

Sanderson hasn’t found the woody meat at its so-called tray-pack plants that prepare chicken for retailers. Birds slaughtered at the company’s big-bird deboning plants are about 9 pounds, while chickens weigh about 6.5 pounds at the tray-pack plants.

Supplies identified as woody after screening are sold at a discount and used in products such as chicken nuggets, because the meat is too tough for dishes requiring tender meat, such as salads. The problem started a couple of years ago when breeders selected certain birds for growth rates and breast-meat yield, Sanderson said. Breeders will take two to three years to fix the issue as they eliminate birds that produce the trait, he said.

Some chicken buyers “are considering requiring their suppliers to move to a smaller chicken, because they’re having problems with woody breast in their restaurants,” Sanderson said on a conference call Thursday to discuss fiscal third-quarter results with analysts.

While chicken processors are trying to avoid the woody meat, another reason to slow gains in animal weight is that making birds bigger will “not satisfy customer needs,” Sanderson said. Customers who buy wings from the company sell the product by piece not weight and need the appropriate weight for the right count, he said.

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