I remember when I was a kid, running around outside, playing with my sisters and neighbours, a warm summer evening and the smell of the barbecue filling our noses, making our mouths water. My dad would be manning the grill as he always did, flipping the chicken breast an unnecessary number of times. He would start out with the gigantic pieces of chicken that had to be 6-7 ounces each. By the time he finished overcooking them (he was very old school and thought that everything had to be cooked to death) they would be around 3-4 ounces. I’ve always wondered why this would happen but never bothered to ask about it. I just assumed this was a characteristic of chicken.
After high school I attended a local Culinary Arts school, which focused on technique in gourmet cooking. The chicken we used in our class was always fresh and didn’t shrink down like the chicken of my childhood. There was definitely a reason for this but I didn’t bother to put two and two together until a few years later.
In 2008, I went to work for a local food distribution company, and there, unknowingly, was where I would finally get some answers.
We had weekly sales meetings, which consisted of sales training, vendor presentations of new products, and probably the most important aspect, nutritional information about the food that we were selling, of which, I always found chicken to be the most fascinating. This fascination was somewhat with the bird itself but mostly the processes involved between the slaughter and the finished product.
Most people think that all chicken is just chicken. The processing plants chop the heads off, the bird dies, they pluck it, separate it into the individual parts and they are done. Although this is true in some places, for the most part, however, there are a couple of steps missing.
Let’s go back to the bird itself to examine one of the worst games played in the poultry industry. The Chicken that is available for purchase in North America comes from two main countries, the US and Brazil. Brazilian birds are as close to the natural state of a bird that we are going to get. Their meat protein percentage (a scale on which the quality of chicken is measured) is around 24%. American birds measure around 22%. Why the difference? American birds have been genetically modified to grow larger breasts, and are force fed to fatten them up so that they reach the appropriate slaughter size much faster.
Once the birds are slaughtered, the meat is ready for the next step. Chicken breasts are then “needled”, which is when a small metal pad presses into the meat poking small pinholes into it while slowly injecting it with a minute amount of water, salt and tripolyphosphates (which is a synthetic salt used for preserving food). After needling the meat, it continues down a conveyor belt into a tumbler that looks like a small cement mixer. In the tumbler is more of the mixture that was just needled into the meat. The door is then shut, the tumbler sloshes back and forth until the mixture is completely absorbed by the chicken. At this point the breast has almost doubled in size and weight. Discount, oversized chicken is born.
So what does this mean to consumers?
- You should always read that meat protein percentage number on the package. The closer you can get to 22% or 24%, the “cleaner” the chicken is.
- If you buy the lower quality chicken, don’t be surprised when it shrinks. And remember, the water is coming out but much of the salt and tripolyphosphates are staying behind for you to consume.
- The food industry has a number of major players that get filthy rich off of selling you garbage and the bodies that govern them are well funded by those same companies.
Remember to always read the labels, ignore the buzzwords, and if we are all knowledgeable consumers then the Cluck will truly stop here.