A disagreement among poultry producers about whether chicken injected with salt, water, and other ingredients can be promoted as “natural” has prompted federal officials to consider changing labeling guidelines.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had maintained that if chicken wasn’t flavored artificially or preserved with chemicals, it could carry the word “natural” on the package; however, after some producers, politicians, and health advocates noted that about one-third of chicken sold in the U.S. was injected with additives that could represent up to 15 percent of the meat’s weight, doubling or tripling its sodium content, the agency agreed to take another look at its policy.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service plans to issue new proposed rules this fall.
Perdue, the nation’s third largest poultry producer, is among those pushing for a change. “Our labels say natural or all natural only if there is nothing added,” Perdue spokesman Luis Luna said. “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to label poultry that has been enhanced with water or broth or solutions as natural, or all natural.”
Such mixtures are often added to poultry to make the meat tastier and more tender. Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods, the two largest chicken processors, are among those that proclaim their chicken is “natural” even though it has been injected with salt and water. Industry experts said the practice has become more common in the past decade.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company sponsored a national study that found most consumers didn’t mind those labels if the ingredients added were deemed natural.
Gary Rhodes, a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, said the company simply wanted to offer its customers a choice.
“We offer both 100 percent natural enhanced and non-enhanced fresh chicken,” Rhodes told a national wire service. “It really depends on what the customer wants. It’s all about choice.”
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, argues that current labeling rules leave consumers confused.
“With all the talk about food now, all the interest in salt, the chicken industry needs to be very upfront about these issues, and be very truthful,” said Mattos.
Some consumers argue that if they buy fresh, unprocessed food they assume that nothing is added.
“If it says natural, I expect it to be all natural–nothing but chicken,” he said.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer called in a press conference earlier this year for the USDA to “immediately prevent sodium injected chicken from using the ‘natural’ label and require all poultry producers to identify added ingredients in print large enough to ensure that consumers can make informed choices.”
Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco said the issue is worrisome because Americans generally eat far too much salt.
Her research, published this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that regulations aimed at cutting back Americans’ sodium intake could save $10 billion to $24 billion in health care costs, and thousands of lives, every year.
Government intervention is needed, Bibbins-Domingo said, because much of the salt people eat comes in prepared food, not out of a salt shaker.
“We have to educate people to read labels and make better choices,” she said. “When there are foods that people consider to be fresh and without additives, and they also have salt added, you feel you are almost fighting a losing battle.”
Foster Farms, based in Livingston, Calif., has been at the forefront of the campaign to change labeling rules.
The company sells marinated products that have added salt–but it is clear to consumers, said company spokesman Ira Brill. The problem with injection is the customer can’t tell what’s in their chicken.
“One of the issues we face as a nation is how to eat healthy,” Brill said. “To the degree you like salt, you should be able to add it. But you should be able to make that decision for yourself. “