A coalition of poultry producers is mobilizing to push the Agriculture Department to tighten the definition of "natural," a word food companies often use on their labels to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
The coalition is made up of producers who don't typically use additives in their fresh chicken products. It wants the department, which is rewriting its 25-year-old definition of "natural," to craft a new one that excludes chicken products that contain anything other than chicken. The group, which includes Sanderson Farms Inc., Foster Farms and Gold'n Plump Poultry, plans to deliver its formal request to the agency in a letter this week.
Industry giants like Tyson Foods Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp. recently have started labeling their products as "100% Natural," even though they are mechanically injected or tumbled with a marinade solution that consists of sea salt, water and in some cases starchy products like carrageenan, a seaweed extract that helps chicken breasts retain moisture.
The Agriculture Department currently decides on a case-by-case basis which products can use the "natural" label. The agency is guided by a one-page general principle that says "natural" products can't contain any artificial flavor, artificial color, chemical or synthetic ingredient. It also says that the product can only be "minimally processed."
Industry practices have changed significantly since 1982, when the policy was written. For years food companies relied more on chemicals in the manufacturing process. But today, they are increasingly using sophisticated industrial processes, rather than loads of artificial additives, to make products that meet consumer ideals of healthiness and taste.
The result is a blurring of lines as an increasing number of consumers are drawn to packages labeled "natural," "fresh," "free-range" or "organic." Last year, Tyson introduced a new line of products called "100% All Natural Marinated Fresh Chicken." The chicken is either injected or tumbled with a marinade solution containing chicken broth, sea salt and "natural flavor." Pilgrim's Pride, the nation's largest chicken producer, also recently introduced a line of "natural" chicken that contains chicken broth, salt and carrageenan.
Tyson says extensive surveys show that consumers prefer the enhanced chicken over conventional chicken. Pilgrim's Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson says the ingredients used to enhance chicken are all naturally occurring and that they don't "fundamentally alter the product."
Smaller poultry producers are crying foul. They say they have been using "natural" on their labels for years as a way to distinguish their products, which typically contain nothing but chicken. Now they contend that the big players are diluting the integrity of the "natural" label. "Seaweed occurs naturally in the ocean -- not in chickens," says Lampkin Butts, president of Sanderson Farms.
They also say big producers are misleading consumers by selling them a product that contains higher moisture content, which means more weight, without prominently declaring that on the label. The solution can account for as much as 15% of the weight of a package of Tyson's "All Natural" boneless skinless chicken breasts. The product typically costs the same per pound as its untreated chicken products.
Enhanced chicken also typically contains more sodium. A breast of untreated chicken contains less than 50 milligrams of sodium, compared with 320 milligrams of sodium in a single serving of Pilgrim's Pride's "100% Natural" split breast with ribs.
Stephen Havas, vice president of the American Medical Association, is concerned the added sodium "has potential health implications" because most consumers aren't reading labels on "natural" chicken because they expect it to be free from any additives.
The poultry coalition plans to ask the Agriculture Department to require poultry-product labels to include a more prominent description of what exactly the product contains. Currently the labels, which say something like "enhanced with up to 15% chicken broth" may not pop out to the casual shopper, even though the department requires the lettering to be no smaller than one-quarter the size of the largest letter on the label.
Robert Post, the department's director of labeling and consumer protection, says poultry processors using the injection method can advertise their product as "natural" even though injection requires a giant machine that sticks metal needles into the chicken. He says that is because, in the agency's views, the process is similar to the kind of tenderizing processes that consumers can use at home.
The coalition may face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill. Last year Tyson Foods, through its political action committee, spent $185,000 on federal campaign contributions, while Foster Farms, spent $8,000.
But smaller chicken producers have had success fighting the big boys before. In the late 1990s, a similar coalition succeeded in getting the Agriculture Department to forbid processors from labeling chicken as "fresh" if it had been chilled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. The group's official slogan was "If you can bowl with it, it's not fresh" and it generated publicity by actually bowling with frozen chickens.