FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – For 21 years, the main thrust of Casey Owens' research has been improving meat quality for the poultry industry. Which is good.
Because during that time, the poultry industry has risen to the challenges of increasing consumer preferences for more and bigger chicken meat and growing export demands to feed a hungry world. But that growth has come at a cost. Processors are seeing increases in meat defects that cost the industry millions.
Broilers are Arkansas' leading agricultural product, bringing in more than $4 billion in cash farm receipts in 2018, according to the 2020 Arkansas Agricultural Profile, a publication of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
The Pocket Facts edition is available online.
Owens is the Novus International Professor of Poultry Science at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the Division of Agriculture research arm, and the University of Arkansas' Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. She investigates meat quality defects in broiler meat with such descriptive names as woody breast, white striping and spaghetti meat.
"People in the U.S. and other countries have more disposable income, which allows them to have more choices," Owens said. "If they have a bad experience with a company's products, they can afford to seek a different product."
"The meat quality issues that Dr. Owens studies cost the industry millions of dollars in lost yield and condemned or downgraded product," said Mark Cooper, managing director of global genetics for Cobb-Vantress.
The company offers development, production, sale and service of broiler breeding stock.
"Negative consumer experience with poor meat quality can impact where or what type of products of poultry they purchase if the product quality gets bad enough," Cooper said. "Dr. Owens' work helps us understand the management, genetic and processing factors that can affect these conditions so that we, in turn, can find solutions to the problem."
Cobb-Vantress supported the upgrade of the experiment station's poultry processing pilot plant with new equipment. The advances give Owens essential tools for investigating the impacts of meat defects on food production and processing practices that may either mediate or compound product quality problems.
"We have a longstanding partnership with Dr. Owens, and through our collaboration, she is helping us find solutions to reduce these meat quality issues as they relate to our breeding programs," Cooper said.
"Our future plans consist of possible additional investments in the pilot plant to further support the research that goes on in that facility," he said.
Owens said she takes a multi-pronged approach to her research, studying causes and potential solutions during breeding, production and processing.
She collaborates with research colleagues in the Division of Agriculture's Center of Excellence for Poultry Science to investigate the biological and genetic factors that may contribute to some of these quality defects. "Woody breast, for example, develops early in life and becomes more pronounced as birds get closer to market age," Owens said. "It results in compositional changes within the meat, namely an increase in collagen and fat, which further impact meat quality."
Identifying genetic causes and associated markers may help chicken breeders to identify potential breeding interventions that may improve muscle development.
Some quality issues can arise during production, Owens said. She learned that heat stress, for example, can reduce the capacity of muscle tissue to hold water, and that has negative impacts during processing. While other division poultry scientists work on ways to mediate heat stress in live birds, Owens investigates ways the industry can cope with the problem during processing.
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