Auburn researcher developing handheld device to rapidly detect poor poultry meat quality

Published: Jun 27, 2017
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Have you ever bitten into your favorite fast-food chicken sandwich only to find the meat is tough and chewy? This could become a rarity thanks to a process being developed by a researcher at Auburn University to rapidly detect poor meat quality in chicken breasts.

Amit Morey, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture's Department of Poultry Science, is one of seven Auburn researchers recently presented with LAUNCH awards to help commercialize a research project that is expected to impact the economy of the state and region.

LAUNCH: The Fund for Research and Innovation was created in 2015 with the support of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development with the goal of creating an endowment of $10 million that will generate approximately $400,000 annually for research grants.

The funds, Morey says, will speed development of his research significantly and provide an immediate benefit to one of the state's most vital industries.

"Alabama is the second largest poultry producer in the United States," he said. "Consumers love poultry meat, so much so that we're now consuming it at about 90 pounds per capita annually in the U.S., with the majority of it being breast meat."

To satisfy such a robust demand, genetics and nutrition have been improved to grow chickens more efficiently and to provide more meat, Morey says, to the point of achieving approximately 41 billion pounds of ready-to-cook meat annually from chickens produced in this country.

In reaching this point, however, challenges have arisen, including "woody" or "wooden" breasts in chickens.

"This is simply a chicken breast that is very hard to the touch in raw form," Morey said. "It's also very chewy and leathery when it's cooked. That's causing consumer concerns, and there's no way for us to detect it—it happens randomly in chickens."

The only current method for detecting woody breast is to press the chicken fillets by hand to detect the hardness and remove the meat from the food stream, he says. This isn't practical in a commercial poultry setting when 140 to 280 chicken breasts are being produced per minute.

"It's impossible for someone to stand and do this manually, and doing it consistently accurate also is an impossible task," Morey said. "There's personal bias, personal fatigue and other factors involved. If it's incorrectly detected as woody breast, then money will be lost because woody breast sells at a cheaper price."

If woody breast is undetected, then there will be consumer complaints, he says. "Anyone who has eaten a chicken sandwich recently from a fast-food chain has probably encountered some form of woody breast—the meat is tough and dense."

Reducing complaints and economic losses

At issue is how to reduce consumer complaints and economic losses that are occurring in the poultry industry due to woody breast, Morey says.

"The first step would be to have an accurate, reliable and repeatable, easy-to-use and cost-effective detection system," he said. "Based on that, we started looking at different technologies only to find that none existed. It intrigued me that this is a major quality issue, but there's no technology available to address it. It's the 21st century, and we're pressing chicken fillets by hand."

Morey received an initial grant to complete a 7-Tesla MRI scan on a chicken breast, but this and other techniques are much more analytical and require more infrastructure. While they give finer details, they're not easy to use.

Being a meat biochemist by profession, Morey began looking at the MRI scan and exploring the chemistry of the meat. "If there's a textual issue, and the meat is becoming hard and chewy, then it has to have something to do with the chemistry of the meat," he said. "So I started looking at the MRI images and the biochemical parameters."

It soon became clear, Morey says, that the breast meat contains more free water than the normal meat. "The alteration in water content will change the ionic concentration of the free water and hence the electrical conductivity," he said.

He then began tinkering with simple electrodes since he knew that electrical conductivity had been used in the past to detect bacteria in the seafood industry.

"I started looking at commercially available equipment being used to insure seafood freshness—bioelectric impedance analysis, or BIA, technology," he said. "Although seafood freshness and woody breast are two completely different concepts, the BIA principles remain the same. Using a commercially available unit with well-designed hardware and software, as well as partnering with the company, will speed up the commercialization process."

Morey has successfully evaluated the ability of the commercially available hand-held BIA technology to distinguish severe woody breast from normal breast fillets. "This was much easier and quicker to obtain and apply rather than using electrodes and building a device from scratch, so we decided to take this existing technology and cross-adapt it to detect woody breast in chickens."

The research project will continue to develop and validate a bioelectrical impedance index to detect woody breast fillets with varying severity from fast-growing big birds.

"The index can be easily incorporated into the software," Morey said. "When someone uses the hand-held device, the readings will compare with the built-in index. It's all digital, and the person operating it doesn't need special training."

Currently, it's a "near-line" technology, he says, meaning personnel will be required to collect the BIA readings and to sort woody breast meat.

"It's more of a quality assurance tool right now," Morey said. "Later on, we'll try to incorporate it as an 'in-line' technology so the machine can make a decision and you won't need a person there to operate the device. The device is relatively inexpensive considering the benefits. It doesn't require new infrastructure or changing the current procedure, so it's easy to adopt and easy to adapt to."

In the future, the technology could allow processing plants to provide information to farmers, nutritionists and breeding companies on the incidence of woody breast from their broilers.

"Then it becomes a feedback mechanism for farmers," Morey said. "Producers can learn different production methods that result in a better quality chicken. Woody breast is a condition that we need to be able to detect before we can go in and find a cure."