One Question Quiz
L-R: raw normal, raw woody, cooked normal, cooked woody – tag yourself (Design: Archi Banal)
L-R: raw normal, raw woody, cooked normal, cooked woody – tag yourself (Design: Archi Banal)

KaiJanuary 19, 2023

Beware the horror of woody chicken breast

L-R: raw normal, raw woody, cooked normal, cooked woody – tag yourself (Design: Archi Banal)
L-R: raw normal, raw woody, cooked normal, cooked woody – tag yourself (Design: Archi Banal)

Shoppers overseas and now in Aotearoa have been noticing that chicken breasts seem bigger, tougher and less tasty. What’s going on?

Oh no, my chicken is chewy – am I a bad cook?

Unfortunately this can’t be ruled out. Chicken breast is easy to overcook. Especially if you grab it from the fridge and chuck it straight onto a hot pan. Many chefs agree, starting with cold meat generally leads to tough outcomes. But chewy chicken may not be your fault.

OK, so is it the chicken that’s bad?

That’s also a definite possibility. More than a handful of shoppers have recently noticed chicken breast they’ve purchased seems tougher than normal and just isn’t that good. It may be the dreaded “woody chicken”. These shoppers have also noticed that it seems to be the “abnormally enormous” and cheaper chicken breasts from the supermarkets that have this issue.

Excuse me. Woody chicken?????

“Woody” chicken breast is tougher, paler and less tasty. It has a fibrous, coarse texture and isn’t very nice. Woodiness usually only occurs in chicken breast and doesn’t seem to affect other cuts like thighs or wings. It tends to be more prevalent in commercially raised chickens. 

What causes chicken to become woody?

The cause of this poor texture isn’t scientifically confirmed or agreed upon, but research points toward rapid growth rates as the cause. One poultry science researcher in the United States has found fast growth adds stress, and that stress degrades protein and causes collagen and fat to move into the muscle making it tougher. 

While the New Zealand poultry industry doesn’t use growth promoting hormones, as other overseas poultry markets do, many chickens here are still bred to reach kill weight as quickly as possible. Some meat birds in New Zealand grow to full size in just 35 days, often in crowded, poorly ventilated sheds. Health issues in such varieties have been well documented – some birds reportedly struggle to stand.

Just how woody is our chicken supply right now?

There isn’t publicly available data on how woody or not woody New Zealand’s chicken supply is. But for reference, between 5 and 30% of the chicken in the US is woody. Consumers and producers there have been aware of the issue for about eight years, and according to Perdue Farms, it affects the entire industry.

What’s being done about woody chicken?

This remains to be seen. There have been no official communications from suppliers or supermarkets about this issue in New Zealand. But suppliers elsewhere are sorting out woody breasts and researchers are trying to learn more about the cause and cure.

Is woody chicken bad for me?

No, but with the price of Tegel chicken, for example, up 10%, getting a leathery piece is at least 10% more gutting.

According to the Poultry Industry of Association of New Zealand, the average New Zealander eats about 37.5 kg of chicken – roughly 20 chickens – per year. Chicken tenders are already in short supply. If tender chicken goes scarce, what protein could replace it?

How do I avoid woody chicken?

To avoid buying woody chicken, touch it. If it feels oddly firm, don’t get it. Go for smaller breasts, or thighs which are less affected.

Organic, free range options seem less likely to be woody. While these options cost more, the true price difference is a slippery thing. In 2017, a consumer found their Countdown chicken breast to be 25% water. Some chicken may be injected with water, increasing the weight. To find out if chicken has added water, check the ingredients list. Water must legally be listed if it is added. In that same year, the Commerce Commission issued a warning to Inghams Enterprises and Tegel for including marinade and stuffing in the total weight of chicken sold.

What do I do if I end up with woody chicken?

You could return it, although that sounds like a bit of a fuckaround. Instead you could try to tenderise it, mince it or slow cook it – basically any means of preparation that doesn’t rely on the chicken itself to be, well… good. Hide it in a brothy bowl of some sort. Shred it into a mayo forward coleslaw. Or complain to the Commerce Commission. 

Keep going!