"Woody breast" could bite the chicken business

The poultry industry has a fowl problem: an emerging phenomenon called "woody breast."

While it's not harmful to humans, the condition causes chicken breasts to be tougher because of hard or woody fibers that lace the meat. As much as 10 percent of boneless and skinless breast meat may show signs of woody breast, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Even though it's harmless to humans, diners aren't exactly pleased when they're served up a plate of woody chicken. In one study, a consumer panel described the affected meat as "tough," "chewy" and "doesn't feel right in the mouth." That's prompting the poultry industry to turn its resources to figuring out what's going on with its chickens.

"The causes at this point are unknown, which is why the industry is spending more than a quarter of a million dollars on four separate research projects through the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association to have all of these questions answered," Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told CBS MoneyWatch.

In a twist, one potential culprit may lie in how the poultry industry has supersized itself by breeding chickens that are now more than twice as large as they were in the 1920s. Back then, the average chicken weighted 2.5 pounds, but chickens today weigh an average of 6 pounds, according to the National Chicken Council.

Breeding for bigger, faster-growing chickens could be tied to the emergence of woody breast, The Journal noted, citing food scientist Massimiliano Petracci.

While it's unappetizing to diners, the emergence of woody breast could spell financial problems for chicken producers such as Perdue Farms. Given consumer reluctance to eat tough chicken breasts, that could lead some producers to sell the meat at a lower price or even to breed smaller chickens in an effort to eliminate the problem.

"The chicken companies will have employees in processing plants looking at every piece of breast meat for any quality issues," Super said. "If found, affected meat is pulled from the line, typically sold at a discount and then further processed or ground for products like chicken sausage."