It used to happen with such infrequency that I barely paid it any attention. However, in just the last month alone, I have come into contact with chicken breasts that were “unusual” to say the least. I always buy Shop Rite’s own freshly sliced chicken, but as I do most of my grocery shopping late because of work, they had run out by the time I got there. So, I ended up with a pack of Tyson. I got home and noticed one out of the four or five slices in the pack had a strange whitish tint to it, and also a hard texture. It was rather disturbing, and I said to myself, “Well, I’m never getting Tyson again”. A week later, in the same circumstance, I ended up with Purdue. In a Groundhog Day moment, just one of the slices in the pack was affected in the identical manner. Skip a week after that, and I have a pack [finally] of Shop Rite’s thinly-sliced chicken breasts. Sure enough, same thing again. Was I losing my mind? What on earth was going on?
My memory then started jogging, and I remembered that this was the reason we stopped buying chicken cutlets at Best Market, and even Livoti’s. This incident now confirmed that it was not really the supermarket’s fault (though they could discard the pieces or use them in ground chicken), but the distributor’s.
I’ll spare you the science, but it is something called woody breast syndrome and white striping if you want to read more. Essentially, it is a muscle abnormality found in chickens. It is not harmful to the chicken or affect its life in anyway, nor is it unhealthy to eat—its just plain disgusting texture-wise. I suppose the frightening part of this is scientists having no idea what actually causes it, though one theory suggests the chickens are being rushed and killed at such a young age that their meat is not developing into a palatable texture because of the speed. The other bit that’s known is that it appears to be genetic and not caused by hormones. Whatever the cause, you will know it when you see it. You won’t have to get so far as to bite down on perfectly cooked chicken yet find yourself spitting it out in horror because it feels raw in your mouth. It is rubbery, chewy, hard, and yes, actually feels as if it was under-cooked.
Four out of my last six times with chicken breast, I have experienced exactly one slice per pack affected in this way. Most packs that I buy contain four to six slices. So we are operating at nearly 25% of the product being “woody”. That is either an incredible coincidence—that every pack has exactly one bad slice—or the butchers know exactly what they are doing when slicing them up. I can tell you right now that not any woody or white-striped slice of chicken breast was anywhere near the top of the package or any place that was clearly visible.
This has led me to really cut down on my chicken consumption of late. In fact, the mere thought of chicken sometimes churns my stomach when I think of one incident from three weeks ago. I had a grill pan, smoking-hot, and was grilling chicken breasts for fajitas and the woody breast refused to develop grill marks. While the others around it were fine, something was clearly wrong. I cranked up the heat even more and moved it to the center after taking the others off. I left it for maybe another 10 minutes and there was still no browning of any kind. I cut it open to see that it did cook (too much, and had to be thrown out) but why was this chicken unable to brown or even burn? Any other meat on there that thin for that amount of time would have been charred. It was like a bizarre science experiment and part of me does not want to know why.
The frequency has also been alarming. I went from experiencing this two or three times in the last five years to now almost every week. And in case you are wondering if buying organic would be any better, the studies have shown that organic chickens can be affected in the identical manner as non.
So what are your options? Well, they are limited. My examples range across three or four different companies and multiple supermarkets over the years. Obviously, buying thin-sliced chicken breast is the easiest way to come across woody breast or white stripe because such slices can be easily tucked underneath the good slices. This disease, if we can call it that, only affects the breast, so legs, wings, thighs, etc. will be fine. But certain recipes call for certain things, and while breast meat arguably has the least amount of flavor, sometimes you need to use it. My advice would be to buy whole breasts, where they cannot hide anything. You can then slice them to desired thickness. However, even in plain sight it may be hard to determine problems with an untrained eye or even the lighting in the grocery store.
I would also like to ask said stores if perhaps in the future they would not be so cunning in slipping this stuff into packages that we pay good money for. Since there is no health hazard, the breasts could be used in ground chicken (or sent to McDonald’s—sorry, couldn’t resist) and no one would know the difference. Remember, there is nothing actually “wrong” with the meat.
If you did not notice it before, you will now. Be on the lookout.