Background: Slow-growing lines are widely used in France for the production of high quality free-range chickens. While such production is mainly dedicated to the whole carcass market, new prospects are opening up for the development of cuts and processed products. Whether the body composition and meat quality of slow-growing birds can be improved by selection has thus become an important issue. The genetic parameters of growth, body composition and breast meat quality traits were evaluated in relation to behaviour at slaughter in a large pedigree population including 1022 male and female slow-growing birds.
Results: The heritability coefficients (h²) of body weight and body composition traits varied from 0.3 to 0.5. Abdominal fat percentage was genetically positively correlated with body weight but negatively correlated with breast muscle yield. The characteristics of the breast meat (i.e., post-mortem fall in pH, colour, drip loss, shear-force and lipid content) were all heritable, with h² estimates ranging from 0.18 to 0.48. The rate and extent of the fall in pH were under different genetic control. Strong negative genetic correlations were found between the ultimate pH and the lightness, yellowness and drip loss of the meat. Wing flapping on the shackle line was significantly heritable and exhibited marked genetic correlations with the pH at 15 min post-slaughter and the redness of the meat. The genetic relationships between meat quality traits, body weight and body composition appeared slightly different between males and females.
Conclusion: This study suggested that there are a number of important criteria for selection on carcass and breast meat quality in slow-growing birds. Selection for reduced abdominal fatness and increased breast muscle yield should be effective as both traits were found to be highly heritable and favourably correlated. Substantial improvement in meat quality could be achieved by selection on ultimate pH which was highly heritable and strongly correlated with the colour and water-holding capacity of the meat. Moreover, this study revealed for the first time that the behaviour at slaughter is partly genetically determined in the chicken.