Well, I had procured my chicken in Connecticut. What about the thread-goers?
A loyal Costco member for the past decade, the original poster, Abraham, told me over the phone that he purchases the chicken at least “a few times a year”—in Southern California. (Hoping not to associate his identity with his Reddit account, he requested we omit his last name.) The first time he noted the chemical taste early this year, it was “mild,” and mostly localized to the skin of the chicken. He mentally cataloged it but charged ahead, buying yet another chicken.
The second time? “We just tossed it,” he said. “We didn’t eat it or give it to the kids.”
Another Californian, Shawn LaVrar, shared in a DM with me that they’d noticed the soapy taste roughly three times in the last couple of years—also on the skin of the chicken.
What’s more, a Washington, DC-based writer for Today.com reported his recent Costco rotisserie “didn’t taste any different,” while a San Francisco-based reporter for Insider wrote last year that her Costco rotisserie chicken tasted “unnatural.”
Was I onto something? Foster Farms didn’t respond to a request for comment. So I called up Harshavardhan Thippareddi, PhD, professor of poultry science at the University of Georgia, ever-so-smugly awaiting a verbal pat on the back for cracking the soapy chicken code. Instead, he nipped that theory right in the bud. Costco, the mega powerful chain it is, likely standardizes chicken preparation across all of its suppliers, he said, so it’s unlikely that one farm would turn out remarkably worse chicken than the next.
“They tell all their suppliers, ‘Hey, this is what we want you to do,’” he said. “It’s not up to the processor or supplier.” (Costco did not respond to a request for comment.)
While my geography theory quickly dissipated into obsolescence, and with it my confidence in my investigatory skills, he offered another culprit: phosphate. He said that rotisserie chicken, prone to dryness in the preparation stage, is often injected by many poultry suppliers with the chemical compound to keep them extra juicy. Indeed, Costco’s rotisserie chickens include phosphate among a laundry list of other ingredients with very long names. And while ideally consumers shouldn’t be able to taste phosphate, Thippareddi said, some are more sensitive to the chemical than others.
Perhaps people tasting soapy notes in Costco chickens were reacting to the phosphate. As I searched various permutations of “phosphate,” “chicken,” and “soap” on Google, one 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research stopped me in my tracks. Researchers from Texas Tech and Auburn University found that “excess phosphate addition can cause ‘soapy’ flavors, rubbery texture, and poor color.”
The California Dried Plum Board, suggesting that phosphates be replaced with…dried plums, also noted in a 2011 “bulletin” that “alkaline phosphates result in a ‘soapy’ flavor when used at too high a level.” I’d have to assume that the California Dried Plum Board has a financial interest in plugging dried plums as an industrial-scale additive to millions of chickens, but hey, evidence is evidence.