Sort & Cull

Updating the Beef-Chicken Foot Race

I trust I'm not the only nostalgic geezer in this season's leaky line shack who remembers with no little pride and general bullishness when beef was known as the "Cadillac of Meat." Aggressively plucked from the exploding and status-packed U.S. auto industry, this swaggering metaphor of the 1960s and 1970s boldly dropped off commercial and noncommercial tongues alike to convey a unique combination of quality, quantity and discriminating expense.

If you counted your lifestyle among the country's wealthy elite, if you felt your kin and you surging toward the top of the middle class, if you were on the make for economic success and status, even if you somehow equated acceptable patriotism with menu choice and unquestionable bill of fare, the serving and consumption of beef steak became the culture's master dietary icon.

At the same time, the other end of the cultural food chain was still largely pecking around the barnyard waiting for Grandma to scatter feed on one hand and plan Sunday dinner on the other. The ominous laurels of mass production and fast food innovation remain decades in the future. Parked in the shadow of a flashy lot of Cadillacs, old-school chicken seemed as cutting-edge and ambitious as used and rusty Chevy Bel Airs, known to burn oil by the drum.

Of course, such a reality promoted both arrogance and distain among cattlemen, both of which eventually stifled necessary product change, innovation and vision. While the desirability of beef was considered beyond challenge for far too long, the real potential of chicken demand was thoughtlessly dismissed with words and phrases like "bland," "tasteless," "cardboard shingles for sauces," "chicken fatigue," "one dimensional retail" and "the family float."

I can even remember a sad collection of standard jokes once told within the prideful circles of beef production to tout the unbridgeable distinction between beef and chicken. For example, take the story that has two curious ranchers pulled off the interstate by billboards reading: "Come See The Chicken Future: Home Of The World's Fastest Roosters."

The cowboys pulled into a yard filled with long confinement buildings, semi-trucks draped in solar plastic and a large feed mill. Yet not a living soul seemed to be moving, except the periodic rushing of wind and dust, a crazy burst of mysterious energy that suddenly came and disappeared out of nowhere.

Finally, the operational manager stepped from his truck to greet the confused cattlemen. He explained that they were visiting a top research facility for poultry development. When asked about the strange display of whirlwinds they had been experiencing, the manger just calmly shook his head: "Oh, that's just the three-legged chickens we've developed to expand desirable parts for hungry chicken-lovers at the meat counter."

"How do they taste?" the ranchers almost shouted in unison.

"I'll let you know," the bird scientist said, shrugging. "Just as soon as we can catch one."

Unlike the invaluable aging of wine, whiskey and cranky teenagers, a groany story like this seldom improves with time. More often than not, it only gets groanier. To tell the truth, the old chicken ridicule wasn't all that funny 50 years ago. Yet it did seem to legitimately spark a few chuckles in the way it underscored the dominance of beef demand and the far-fetched hopes of chicken demand that seemed hinged on nothing short of science fiction.

And if this sorry lamer about three-legged chickens still has a minimum of comedic punch, it can credit the accrual swing in meat production seen since the late 1970s. Roughly speaking, per capita chicken consumption raced ahead of per capita beef consumption by more than 40 pounds.

I don't intend to rehearse here the well-known starring roles by broiler producers on one hand (i.e., brilliant performances of consolidation, marketing and product development) and critically dropped lines by beef understudies (i.e., bouts of genetic confusion, false health and environmental claims, inadequate new product development) on the other. We all know the amazing details of that marathon reversal.

Rather, what's prompted today's beef/chicken race commentary has less to do with historical results than ongoing strategy. In short, there's new evidence that despite chicken's zooming performance over beef in recent decades, this pronounced growth bias continues to accelerate -- perhaps to a longer-term disadvantage for the poultry industry.

According to a recent Dow Jones article, while chicken companies spent years breeding birds to grow fast and develop large breast muscles, the industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the consequences. The article said this ranged from squishy fillets -- known as "spaghetti meat," because they pull apart easily -- to leathery ones known as "woody breast."

These may be the serious quality wages of superior rates of production over the competition. According to the National Chicken Council, the corporate coop can now raise a 6.3-pound bird in 47 days, about twice as fast as 50 years ago, Dow Jones reported.

According to the article, Pilgrim's Pride Corp., Perdue Farms Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc. produced in 2018 a record 42 billion pounds of chicken nuggets, tenders and other products. But learning to successfully cut and market the extra product has not come cheap. This year, the titan sprinters of the chicken world will probably spend an additional "$200 million or more in annual industry expenses to identify and divert breast fillets that are too tough, too squishy or too striped with bands of white tissue to sell in restaurants or grocery stores," stated the article.

"There is proof that these abnormalities are associated with fast-growing birds," Dr. Massimiliano Petracci, a professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, said to Dow Jones. Petracci leads a team of researchers investigating the chicken breast problems in breeds used in commercial farms. "Two poultry-breeding firms -- Cobb-Vantress, owned by Tyson, and Aviagen Inc. -- supply the bulk of breeding stock for the world's chicken companies," reported Dow Jones. "Years of matching up genetic lines has boosted each bird's yield of breast muscle, the white meat that sells for a roughly 13% premium to overall wholesale chicken meat prices," according to USDA data, the article said.

"Spaghetti meat -- a name researchers have given chicken breast fillets that can be picked up and pulled apart by hand or punctured easily with a fingertip -- began appearing in 2015 and now can be detected in around 4% to 5% of breast meat samples," according to the Dow Jones article. "It looks like spaghetti noodles," Dr. Casey Owens, a University of Arkansas professor, told Dow Jones, explaining the affected muscle fibers have a stringy texture.

The Dow Jones article went on to report that researchers also began observing white striping in commercially raised chickens around 2010, with woody breast appearing on the scene around 2013, according to Dr. Petracci. Woody breast has been found in around 10% of samples, while white striping occurs in around 30% of chicken breasts sampled, he told Dow Jones.

At this point, it's impossible to predict that such quality problems could cause chicken runners to purposely lose a step or two on their beef counterparts. I suppose the market has always forced crazier things to happen.

Yet this complicated round of track and field is causing me to recall the wisdom of Damon Runyon, artist of the short story, discerning journalist and witty analyst of American behavior. Once, he put all our probability feet to the fire by paraphrasing the 9th chapter of Ecclesiastes: "The race may not always go to the swift, but that's the way to bet."

John A. Harrington can be reached at



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