Chicken has changed for the worse—and the proof is in the stripes
You may have seen it on our website, in the news, or even closer to home at your local supermarket: chicken has a white striping problem—and it has big implications for both chickens and humans alike. The latest scientific research has a lot to say about the state of the modern chicken and how our treatment of the most factory-farmed animal in America has negatively impacted the resulting meat (spoiler: it’s not pretty).
Since we broke this story and everyone from BuzzFeed to Good Housekeeping, VICE to Cosmopolitan have helped us spread the word, we’ve been getting a lot of important questions from animal advocates and conscious consumers like you, who are concerned about what this growing trend means for your health and the welfare of chickens. We thought we’d take a minute to clear things up:
Aren’t those stripes just natural marbling?
No. While a lot of chicken meat contains a negligible amount of fat on the outside, white stripes (as seen in the example to the right) are actually indicative of a muscular disorder, which causes damaged muscle tissue to be replaced by fat and collagen. These fat and collagen deposits not only mean more fat, less protein, and degraded meat for the consumer, but significantly more pain and suffering for the animal.
What causes white striping to occur?
Contrary to popular belief, the massive size of the modern chicken is not a result of added hormones. In fact, the muscle disorders that cause white striping—as well as another, less visible condition called “woody breast”—are linked to a chicken’s genetics. Decades of selective breeding on factory farms have resulted in birds that grow too big, too fast. As a result, their legs often cannot support their unnaturally large breasts, and their heart, lungs, and other organs are often unable to keep up with the body's demand for oxygen and nutrients. A normal chicken would spend most of its life on the move—a factory farmed chicken spends most of its life on the floor. Add to that dirty, overcrowded factory farm conditions, and you get abnormalities like white striping and woody breast that severely impact the life of the chicken and the quality of the meat.
What does it mean for my health?
The science is pretty straightforward on this score: white striping means more fat—we’re talking up to 224 percent more—and less protein, enough to call chicken’s reputation as the leaner choice into question. And if you’re thinking that this problem probably won’t affect you, think again: one study found that a whopping 96 percent of the chicken samples tested were affected by white striping. Food for thought for the next time you consider opting for a chicken Caesar salad!
What does it mean for the chickens?
Quite simply, it means more suffering. The muscle disorders that cause white striping and woody breast are similar to muscular dystrophy in humans, meaning that affected chickens are in pain for most of their lives. If you spot white stripes in a raw chicken breast, you can be sure that the bird’s life was not a happy one.
What does it mean for the quality of the meat?
White striping and woody breast degrade the quality of chicken breast, not only in its nutritional value, but in its texture and appearance. Meat affected by these disorders is often tough and chewy—so much so, that it’s starting to impact chicken companies’ bottom lines. Rather than sell it in its raw form, big poultry producers now use this degraded meat in their processed products, masking its abnormalities by breading it, frying it, or grinding it up. Something to consider the next time you see those frozen nuggets!
Can I avoid this problem by only buying organic, antibiotic-free chicken?
Unfortunately, no. In the United States, organic chickens are often the same breeds as conventional chickens, and the USDA Organic label has little meaning in terms of animal welfare. Antibiotic-free chicken only indicates the animals are not fed antibiotics, and is not an indicator of better genetics or living conditions. In fact, a recent video showed the devastating result of removing antibiotics from the system without also improving genetics and living conditions. Even the farmers are concerned that diseased birds could be ending up on America’s dinner plates.
I’ve heard that white striped chicken is safe to eat. Is this true?
You may have seen that the National Chicken Council (NCC) responded to our video by saying that chicken with white striping is perfectly fine and safe for consumers. While these muscle disorders are not considered food safety issues, they’re far from perfectly fine: they mean food that is less nutritious and less pleasant to eat—not to mention a lifetime of pain and suffering for the chicken.
What chicken should I buy instead?
Luckily, the market is starting to shift, and more and more companies are committing to slower-growing breeds; however, it will take several years for them to fully transition their entire supply chains. In the meantime consider adding more plant-based protein to your plate. If you buy chicken, be sure to look for labels that clearly indicate the use of slower-growing or “heritage” breeds. Specifically, the Animal Welfare Approved certification label requires slower-growing breeds, and Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certification will require breed changes by 2024 (but GAP levels 4 and above already utilize slower-growing birds). To learn more about what to buy, download our free Compassionate Food Guide!
Have a question that wasn’t answered here, or just want to learn more? Join Leah Garces, our Executive Director, on Tuesday, February 28 at 1:30 PM EST for a Facebook Live discussion about white striping and its implications for animal welfare and consumer health.