This article originally appeared on Munchies in the US.
No matter how you feel about cooking animals, we can probably agree that a chicken breast should feel like flesh—which is to say, dense, taut, a little bouncy. At this point, even fake “chicken” feels pretty freakin’ fleshy, thanks to modern food science. Food science, however, is apparently also to blame for a new phenomenon: squishy, stringy “spaghetti meat” chicken.
Historically, stringy meat has generally been the result of overcooked chicken. But that’s not the case here: “spaghetti meat” chicken refers to raw meat that’s squishy, pulls apart easily, and “looks like spaghetti noodles,” the Wall Street Journal reported. It’s still pretty uncommon, affecting only up to 5% of birds, but people have noticed it since at least 2015. It could explain inquiries like this one on Reddit, titled “Stringy raw chicken breast?” and paired with a gnarly-looking piece of meat.
Along with hard, chewy meat called “woody breast,” “spaghetti meat” is allegedly the result of breeding to make big-breasted chickens grow faster. “There is proof that these abnormalities are associated with fast-growing birds,” Dr. Massimiliano Petracci, a professor of agriculture and food science at the University of Bologna in Italy, told the Wall Street Journal. “Woody breast” and “spaghetti meat” might sound unsettling, but eating them won’t hurt you, according to industry experts.
Broiler chickens, which are chickens grown for meat, grow a hell of a lot faster than they used to, judging by numbers from the National Chicken Council. In 2000, the average bird went to market at 47 days old, weighing 5.03 pounds. In 2019, the average chicken still goes to market at day 47—but now, it weighs 6.27 pounds. People our grandparents’ age and older were cooking chickens that were much older and much smaller: in 1925, broilers took 112 days to grow to a 2.5-pound marketweight.
Those changes have been the result of genetic selection to breed birds that grow larger breast muscles more quickly, the Wall Street Journal wrote. As the Washington Post has reported, the demand for white meat has increased over the past few decades—just think of all the breast meat in boneless wings and chicken tenders—so the industry has shifted to supply chickens with “proportionally larger breasts.”
Fast food chains and grocery stores might have pushed the demand for breast meat, but according to the Wall Street Journal, companies including Wendy’s and Whole Foods are going back to slower-growing chickens. Purchasers at Whole Foods think chickens that grow slower and with a better quality of life will taste better, the New York Times wrote in 2017.
Industry officials told the Wall Street Journal that they can fix the problem using—what else?—more genetic selection, but it’ll take a few years. Until then, spaghetti meat: not just for pasta Bolognese anymore.