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Making Sure Consumers Get Their Fill--of Chicken Breasts

By Sharon Durham
September 6, 2001

It may sound simple, but it can be tricky making sure that every four-pound bag of poultry parts contains at least four pounds.

That’s because of natural variations in size that occur, despite the best efforts of today’s broiler growers to produce a uniform product. Not all chicken breasts or legs are the same size or weight. And this variability poses something of a problem to poultry wholesalers intent on streamlining operations in order to put affordable meat on the tables of millions of consumers. The recent trend has been away from unit pricing that charges so much per pound, toward a system called minimum weight pricing, or MWP.

Louis L. Young, an Agricultural Research Service food scientist based at ARS’ Richard B. Russell Research Center in Athens, Ga., recognized the huge task poultry wholesalers face. Approximately 8 billion broiler chickens are raised each year in the United States. While some of this meat gets packaged for high-end markets as skinned, boned, pre-sliced chicken for stir-fry, much is sold simply prepacked in parts--as drumsticks, thighs, wings or breasts--and sold by MWP.

Young was curious about the exact weight of this prepackaged poultry. He knew that in order to hit the stated weight minimum, it is often necessary to overfill the packages, because you can’t simply add half a leg or part of a breast to make the weight exact. And he knew that the overfill sometimes reaches as much as 13 percent above the stated minimum.

So Young developed a statistical modeling approach to minimize the amount of underfill--or overfill--that occurs with unevenly sized food products such as poultry parts. This helps ensure that both the wholesaler and consumer get their due.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.