If chicken wasn't flavored artificially or preserved with chemicals, it could carry the word "natural" on the package, U.S.D.A. had maintained. But the agency agreed to look again at its policy after some processors, politicians and health advocates charged that approximately one-third of the chicken sold in the U.S. was injected with additives that could represent up to 15% of the meat's weight – doubling or tripling its sodium content. Some of these folks argue this could mislead consumers and even potentially harm those who must limit their salt intake.
This fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (U.S.D.A.’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) plans to announce new proposed rules on this issue.
Perdue Farms, the nation's third-largest poultry producer, is a member of the Truthful Labeling Coalition, which has hired a lobbyist and launched an advertising campaign.
"Our labels say ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ only if there is nothing added," said Perdue spokesman Luis Luna. "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 ingredients are injected into poultry to render the meat tastier and more tender.
However, Pilgrim's Pride and Tyson Foods, the two largest U.S. chicken processors, are among processors that attach "natural" labels to chicken injected with extra salt and water. This practice has become more common in the past decade, industry experts said.
Tyson Foods said it sponsored a national study that found most consumer didn't mind those labels if the ingredients added were deemed natural, said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson. Pilgrim’s Pride simply wanted to offer its customers a choice, said company spokesman Gary Rhodes.
But current labeling rules leave consumers confused, argues Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. The industry needs to work harder at being clear about its products, he said.
Americans generally consume too much salt, with serious health consequences, said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. Published this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, her research found 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. She insists government intervention is needed because much of the salt people consume comes in prepared food.
Earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released a study that revised the recommended daily salt intake from a teaspoon a day to about two-thirds of a teaspoon. Meat with added salt is a particular problem, the research charged.
Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms has been a leader to change labeling rules. Although its sells marinated products containing added salt, Foster Farms makes this point clear to consumers, said a company spokesman.