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 at https://bit.ly/AAES-AgProfile2020.
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."
Mark Cooper is managing director of global genetics for Cobb-Vantress.
"The meat quality issues that Dr. Owens studies cost the industry millions of dollars in lost yield and condemned or downgraded product," Cooper said.
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 effects 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 multipronged 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.
"I also enjoy developing new tools to measure and assess meat quality and to detect new problems," Owens said.
She recently developed predictive models for detecting woody breast in broiler carcasses using image analysis of carcass features associated with the condition. That process received a patent in October.
Owens' research naturally blends with her teaching in the department of poultry science in UA's Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. She has taught many master's and doctoral students over the years and worked alongside them in research. Their thesis and dissertation research projects have largely built upon and contributed to her research.
"The students are the ones putting in the hours in the lab," she said.
Most of her students go to work for poultry companies.
"They go into the industry knowing the whys and hows of meat processing, how problems arise and what to do about them," Owens said.
Vivek Kuttappan is a research scientist at Novus International Inc.
"I am really thankful for the trust and expectations Dr. Owens put in me, which significantly contributed to my career development and what I am today," said Kuttappan.
When Kuttappan joined her lab as a graduate assistant in 2008, he was assigned to characterize white striping.
"When I started working on white striping, it was really exploratory as there was no previous information available on this condition. However, the more we progressed into understanding the condition, the more complex the project got," Kuttappan said.
Kuttappan said the scope of the project extended into the areas of pathology, serology and consumer studies.
"Dr. Owens was instrumental in exploring collaborative possibilities to solve our questions. She provided me with all the freedom and support to work with experts in specific areas around the U.S., which opened up a whole new world of opportunities for my challenging project," Kuttappan said.
Owens said she works to provide her students with a lot of networking opportunities.
"A lot of industry people come to see our facilities and research, and students get a lot of exposure to industry concerns and needs," Owens said. "And the industry representatives get to see the students doing research and managing labs -- just seeing what they can do."
Owens' students also get opportunities to teach classes in poultry science at the University of Arkansas.
Vishwesh Tijare, a food scientist in research and development at Columbus Craft Meats, a division of Hormel Foods, in Hayward, Calif., taught a lab class and a poultry 101 workshop.
"I always say the best way to learn is to teach something," Owens said.
Tijare's research informed his teaching. He researched the effects of white striping and woody breast on chicken breast quality. He said his teaching and research experience combined to build his technical expertise in meat processing.
"This practical experience helps me perform the day to day technical responsibilities required by my job," Tijare said. "The world of poultry processing encounters new technical issues from time to time, and that is why Dr. Owens always emphasized to all her students that they should be clear on the basic concepts of poultry processing and meat science.
"Dr. Owens trained me in such a way that I'm able to detect the cause of technical issues in my day to day work," Tijare said, "and this has helped me earn a reputation as a true expert in poultry processing at my company."
Owens' teacher-student relationships often extend to professional relationships long after they graduate.
Cain Cavitt is an R&D Fellow Scientist in research and development at Tyson Foods.
"Dr. Owens and I have worked together for over 20 years, serving in the advancement of the poultry industry," Cavitt said. "I attribute much of my professional success to the course work and research guidance that I obtained while working on my Ph.D. at the U of A."
Cavitt's primary research emphasis and studies were in evaluating meat tenderness of poultry breast and muscle biochemistry. Owens said he was instrumental in development of the Meullenet Owens Razor Shear method for measuring meat tenderness, designed in collaboration with Jean-François Meullenet, now senior vice president-agriculture for the Division of Agriculture and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station.
"The course work that I took, along with the research I conducted, was instrumental in helping me start my career within the poultry industry," Cavitt said. "Many of the skills -- poultry processing and operations, muscle biochemistry, sensory science, statistics -- that I use daily are attributed to classes that I took and research principles we practiced while a graduate student for Dr. Owens."
Cavitt has maintained close ties with his alma mater since completing his doctoral degree in 2004.
"I have been able to give back to the U of A poultry science department by serving as an adjunct professor," Cavitt said. "During this time, I've been able to help mentor graduate students by serving on graduate committees as well as guest lecturing to both undergraduate and graduate classes on occasion."
Owens tries to tailor research experience to what students are interested in, she said.
"And I try to get them working with industry partners and visiting companies. I just try to get them exposure and opportunities whenever I can," Owens said.