Passage of recent health care legislation, the Obama administration’s interest in health issues, forthcoming revisions to dietary guidelines and an eagerly anticipated study of sodium intake in the United States make for fertile ground in which some poultry processors hope seeds of labeling change will grow.

At issue: what fresh chicken products can be labeled as “natural.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current guideline states a product must “not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient and that the product is not more than minimally processed.”

Single-ingredient chicken certainly qualifies, but so does product injected with a saltwater solution, also perhaps containing carageenan. Several poultry processors have been crying “foul” – arguing that using needle injection and vacuum tumbling means a product is not minimally processed.

Recently, these processors, including Laurel, Miss.-based Sanderson Farms, Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms and others, have gained some high-profile support.

In February, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., along with the heads of the California Poultry Federation and Center for Science in the Public Interest, spoke out on the issue. “Every consumer has the right to purchase the products of their choice, but fair choice is only possible when we have truthful labeling,” she said. “[I urge] USDA to act to 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.”

The amount of sodium in such enhanced products intersects with interests aiming to reduce sodium intake nationwide. In fact, Boxer’s push comes on the heels of a New York City initiative to curb its citizens’ salt intake by requiring food manufacturers to reduce sodium in packaged retail goods by 15 percent by 2012 and an addition 10 percent by 2014.

What’s more, the Obama administration and the First Lady, in particular, have shown a keen interest in food as it relates to health. Sodium reduction is a large part of that concern, and brings the natural poultry labeling issue front and center.

The Truthful Labeling Coalition (TLC), founded in 2007 and whose corporate members currently include Sanderson Farms, Gold’n Plump Poultry, Perdue Farms and Fieldale Farms, argues that a chicken breast enhanced with a saltwater solution has a higher sodium content than a large order of fast-food French fries, some 300 to 400 mg. A non-enhanced breast, such as one sold by Sanderson Farms, contains approximately 35 mg.

Current dietary guidelines recommend that a healthy consumer with no risk factors consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Those with hypertension, who are obese or are African American are advised to consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

Natural confusion
The TLC was created to spur change in the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s labeling department, but the issue goes back much farther. Enhanced chicken first started hitting grocery-store shelves in about 2003, says Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer of Sanderson Farms. “At that time, producers couldn’t put natural on the label because they were using phosphates along with saltwater,” he continues. “We weren’t using phosphates, so we were able to put ‘100-percent natural’ on our packages.”

Consumer interest in the natural label and fierce competition in the poultry industry led those using phosphates to look for a formulation change. Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. and Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., for example, removed the phosphates, reapplied for a natural label and were approved.

“Consumers are attracted to natural,” Butts says. “There shouldn’t be this confusion and deception for consumers to deal with.” With that position in tow, Butts and others descended on Washington in 2005 to challenge the labeling guidelines, but, he says, a revolving door of agriculture secretaries throughout the latter half of the Bush administration halted any hope for change.

In fall 2006, Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp. filed a petition with the USDA challenging the natural label. After receiving and sitting on the first round of comments for some time, USDA in fall 2009 issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking and again solicited comments. An FSIS spokeswoman says the latest request garnered some 7,500 comments, and the agency is “currently in the process of reviewing and summarizing those comments.” She added that FSIS could initiate rulemaking at any time, but “there is no specific timeline.”

Meanwhile, TLC supporters are hopeful that with Sen. Boxer’s involvement, coupled with media attention from the likes of the LA Times and cable television, it may finally be resolved — and in their favor. “The timing [of her press conference] was no accident,” says Charles Hansen, TLC’s government relations representative. “The drumbeat on sodium is pretty loud now, and it should get a lot louder.”

The increased volume should come with a soon-to-be released report on sodium from the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicines. The same body released a report on hypertension in February, noting sodium’s significant role in high blood pressure. In addition, USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services will jointly take up the challenge of revising the national dietary guidelines, a once-every-five-years effort.

Company endeavors
But interested poultry companies aren’t relying on government-relations efforts alone in spreading their message. Sanderson Farms, for one, launched a “sack the sodium” campaign in key markets, highlighting the fact that its chicken contains less sodium that competitors’ enhanced product.

Foster Farms has gone even farther, utilizing an extensive multimedia campaign to get consumers to, “say no to plumping.” The company last year launched the effort, employing its famed “Foster Imposter” chickens in a wide swath of TV commercials depicting the chickens as grossly bloated Foster Farms wannabes. The idea, Foster Farms’ Marketing Director Ira Brill says, is to humorously draw the distinction between Foster Farms “non-plumped” chickens and enhanced items, while driving home a serious message. And so far, it seems to be working.

“Research tells us that consumers remember the plumping aspect, not just the Imposters,” he says. “[The campaign] is more than entertainment. It really delivers a sales message.”

In addition to making use of a Facebook page with some 20,000 fans and its more serious Web site, Foster Farms will be using the same commercials again this year. “They were so popular that when we took [the ads] off the air, people were asking where they were.” The message will be reinforced via a new on-pack “say no to plumping” sticker, to carry the message into the meat case.

Though Brill says the campaign wasn’t launched as a sales tool, it has definitely helped the numbers. “If you look at most-branded [chicken] products, they lost about one-and-a-half share points to private label [last year],” he says. “We lost maybe two share points to private label.”

Sanderson Farms also has noticed a positive sales shift. Throughout California, as well as in Denver and Phoenix, the company has seen its share of the meat case increase over the last year and expects the trend to continue. “There are a couple of major retailers that do sell the pumped product who are looking hard at reducing the line — not eliminating, but taking part of line and … letting it not be pumped,” he adds.

Nevertheless, competitors continue to sell enhanced product and remain committed to doing so with a natural label. Pilgrim’s Pride, for example, has long argued that four of five consumers prefer its enhanced product to a non-enhanced product. In addition, the company’s fresh, skinless chicken products are certified by the American Heart Association, meaning that each serving contains fewer than 480 mg of sodium. What’s more, Pilgrim’s Pride and its contemporaries are doing so fully within their rights under current labeling standards.

While the die remains to be cast, Butts is optimistic. With an empathetic administration, a swelling tide of public attention on health issues and a meeting with the Agriculture Secretary on his docket, it’s not hard to understand why. “When you look at the whole picture of what’s going on,” he says. “I think that the timing couldn’t be better.”