Many poultry consumers are getting an unhealthy dose of sodium with their bird these days, the result of injections of saltwater during processing that many shoppers don't realize have become common practice, according to consumer advocates and California chicken growers.
Two organizations, one for growers and one for consumer advocates, joined with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in calling on the Agriculture Department Wednesday to shed more light on the injections, known as plumping or enhancing, by preventing processors from labeling such chicken as "100 percent all natural."
Americans eat more than 20 billion pounds of poultry a year. In just the last few years, the percentage of chicken in grocery stores that has undergone the injections has risen from 16 percent to more than 30 percent, according to the California Poultry Federation.
Critics said the injections cheat consumers on two fronts: their health and their pocketbooks. They take in more sodium than what health experts recommend and they pay for it because the injections add weight to the product - up to 15 percent more. They're not asking for a ban of the practice, but for more forthright labeling guidelines.
Boxer said the extra weight amounts to about $2 billion in higher costs because consumers pay by the pound for most chicken products.
"In these difficult times, our families should not have to pay $2 billion for saltwater that they don't know about, they don't want and they certainly don't need," Boxer said.
Casey Owens, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas' Department of Poultry Sciences, said one reason that poultry processors use the injections is that consumers prefer the flavor and texture of the product.
"It does improve the eating quality," she said. "It can improve the tenderness of the product as well."
Under the Department of Agriculture's guidelines, the warnings alerting consumers to the added ingredients can be one-fourth the size of the product name. A typical warning says "Enhanced with up to Fifteen Percent Chicken Broth."
But Boxer said most consumers see the all-natural label and don't look further to investigate other content. She's calling for new guidelines that they say will help consumers make a more informed choice. The Center for Science in the Public Interest joined her in the request.
"Chicken, salt and water are all natural substances, but when you combine the three, you get something that isn't natural anymore," said the organization's executive director, Michael F. Jacobson.
A serving of chicken typically has 70 milligrams of sodium, but a serving of the injected chicken can contain about 370 milligrams. The Institute of Medicine just last week lowered the daily recommended amount of sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day.
California's chicken growers are pushing for the labeling changes because the vast majority of the birds processed there don't get the sodium and water injections. The companies say they know consumers want a product that's all-natural, so that's what they provide. Yet, companies that inject their product with saltwater get to make the same claim.
"It's just very misleading," said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.
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