“Natural” Chicken: Why You Should Be Wary Of Label Claims
The USDA is considering changing labeling guidelines because poultry producers are injecting their chicken with salt, water, and other ingredients (such as broth), yet continuing to advertise the product as "natural." Currently, the USDA guidelines state that if the meat and poultry products do not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients, and if the product is minimally processed, it could be labeled as "natural."
The USDA enforces labeling definitions through the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS). This agency is charged with regular inspection, remediation and fines if a company uses a labeling term, such as "natural", inappropriately.
Salt and water are obviously naturally-occurring ingredients. Poultry producers use water and broth to plump up their products (as much as 15 percent!) for an attractive presentation. Salt or other ingredients are used for flavorings or tenderizers. However, the label being marked as "natural" may mislead consumers into thinking that the product has not been "enhanced," and it could also be harmful for those who must limit sodium intake but do not read the fine print of the ingredient list.
Perdue, the nation's third largest poultry producer, is all for the change. Spokesman Luis Luna said,
"Our labels say natural or all natural only if there is nothing added. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to label poultry that has been enhanced with water or broth or solutions as natural or all natural."
The company has joined a group called the Truthful Labeling Coalition, which has hired a lobbyist and is launching a national advertising campaign.
Manufacturers of food products often use the term "natural" because of the positive association it gives consumers. Natural = healthy. In 2004, the National Marketing Institute reported that 63 percent of consumers have a preference for natural foods and beverages. Another study from the Iowa State University Agricultural Marketing Resource Center found that both the production and purchase of "natural" and "organic" foods have increased significantly over the past 20 years.
California Senator Barbara Boxer is also supportive of the USDA to revise its labeling guidelines. At a press conference earlier this year, she requested the agency 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."
Suzette Kroll RD warns consumers not to be misled by these other healthy-sounding, but sometimes unsubstantiated, terms on meat and poultry products:
- "Natural" claims for meat does not mean that the animal was pesticide-, hormone-, or antibiotic-free prior to slaughter.
- Remember that the "natural" claim is currently only regulated by the USDA for meat and poultry. Other products (like those cookies you are eating) might claim they are "all-natural," but the term has no standard definition by any regulating agency.
- "Cage-free" or "free-range" meats do not always mean healthier or more nutritious products. Free-range only means that the animal is allowed access to the outside for an undetermined amount of time each day, even if that is only for five minutes. Look instead for labels that state "pasture-fed" or "grass-fed." These animals are given more room to graze and are treated much less often with antibiotics.
- Any multi-ingredient product bearing the USDA Organic seal must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Unfortunately, the federal certification process is voluntary, so not every product that claims to be organic undergoes such scrutiny.
The USDA has approved two terms that consumers can trust when purchasing meat and poultry:
- Certified Humane: This is a label given to animals that have never received growth hormones or antibiotics, never lived in cages, crates or stalls, and must have had "access to sufficient, clean, and nutritious feed and water."
- Naturally Raised: This recent USDA standard ensures that an animal was raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.