Crying Foul in Debate Over 'Natural' Chicken

Chicken consumption in the United States is up to 87 pounds per person, from 57 pounds 20 years ago.
Chicken consumption in the United States is up to 87 pounds per person, from 57 pounds 20 years ago. (By Larry Crowe -- Associated Press)
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Pumped up saltwater chickens are on the regulatory menu in Washington as advocates for "natural" food demand labels that reflect what the product actually contains.

Actors wearing chicken suits were on the streets of the capital a few weeks ago, arguing that Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride, the two biggest processors in the $58 billion-a-year U.S. chicken market, shouldn't be able to call their birds 100 percent natural. That's because up to 15 percent of their weight is an injected solution of ingredients such as salt, broth and seaweed extract.

The publicity stunt, by a coalition of smaller processors, is another example of recent pressures on the government and the Agriculture Department to pay more attention to truth in labeling, additives and food safety.

"This is about the USDA not managing the use of the 'natural' label properly," said Lampkin Butts, president of Sanderson Farms in Laurel, Miss., one of the challengers. "Seaweed extract is in the ocean, not in chickens." His company is the nation's third-biggest publicly traded U.S. poultry processor.

Nonsense, counters Ray Atkinson, a spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride of Pittsburg, Tex., the world's biggest poultry processor. "We have 100 percent natural chickens as defined by USDA," he said. "That's what we comply with." The government test for "natural" is that the product not contain anything artificial or synthetic and that it be only minimally processed.

The Agriculture Department approved labels from Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride, reasoning that salt, seaweed and chicken broth were natural ingredients.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the Agriculture Department, said the products are considered minimally processed because a cook can make a similar marinade at home with a fork and a plastic bag.

The word-splitting is important because about 30 percent of chicken now is enhanced with some kind of solution. Proponents say consumers prefer the moister meat that is easier to cook.

Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride processed half the 9 billion chickens raised in the United States last year, according to the National Chicken Council, a trade group in Washington. Chicken consumption in the country has climbed to 87 pounds per person, from 57 pounds 20 years ago.

"We have no issue with chicken that is enhanced," said Michael Helgeson, chief executive of Gold'n Plump Poultry, of St. Cloud, Minn. "But it shouldn't be labeled all-natural if you inject it with a solution." His company's enhanced chicken is labeled "extra tender."

Foster Farms of Livingston, Calif., along with Sanderson and Gold'n Plump, started the Truthful Labeling Coalition. The three companies, which say they add nothing to birds they advertise as natural, petitioned the Agriculture Department in July. They argued that consumers are deceived into paying for water instead of meat and are subjected to high levels of sodium.

The three companies also hired a lobbyist, a lawyer who is a former Agriculture Department official, and a public relations firm. They are gaining support from their local members of Congress.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company