Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Food Legislation Memo: 'Juiced' Chickens That Wear an All-Natural Label

A coalition in the U.S., led by the California Poultry Federation, a number of chicken producing and marketing companies, and over 30,000 consumers, has formed an organization called the Truthful Labeling Coalition. Their goal: To get the U.S. Congress to change the current laws which allow chicken producers to call their birds "all-natural" even though in many cases the chickens are pumped-up by as much as 15% with additives like sodium, saltwater, seaweed and other added ingredients.

The coalition says these pumped up birds--or chickens on steroids--don't deserve the prized label "natural" because they aren't. The poultry companies who are part of the coalition--like California-based Foster Farms, the largest poultry producer in the west, and Perdue Farms, a well-know eastern USA company--don't add anything to their "all-natural" birds. These poultry marketers feel not only that it's wrong to inject the birds with sodium, saltwater and other additives, but that allowing these pumped-up birds to go by the same "natural" label as their really natural chickens puts them at an unfair competitive disadvantage.

It's hard to argue with the member-poultry companies and the coalition about that. There are some issues--like this one--that just are right on the face of it. After all, if added sodium, saltwater and other foreign ingredients can still result in a chicken being called natural, what's next? Perhaps human growth hormone? Supplements to build stronger tissue in the birds? Maybe "supernatural" is a better label in those cases then.

Although the definition of natural is stretched, overused and simply abused in the food and beverage industry, in the case of chickens it appears rather clear cut: Add sodium, saltwater, seaweed or other foreign ingredients and you shouldn't be able to call your chicken "natural." Perhaps "juiced" would be a better term. Further, poultry producers and marketers who do this "juicing," do it at their peril we believe. As more and more consumers find out about this practice, they're going to stop buying these companies' birds. And if these companies produce other meat or grocery products, they could feel the affect of potential boycotts there as well.

In terms of the U.S. Congress, it seems like changing the law so that putting "natural" on a label at least more closely resembles something that really is natural when it comes to chickens, is a no brainier. However, numerous Senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who represent districts where these "juiced" poultry producers are based, have thus far avoided the issue, not wanting to offend major district employers--or lose campaign contributions. (We aren't saying these poultry-producers are doing anything wrong, by the way. Rather, we're merely saying they shouldn't be able to label their "juiced" birds as natural. But until the law is changed, they aren't breaking any laws.)

This looks to be changing however. With more "natural-oriented" poultry producers joining the coalition, it's branched out nationally from its beginnings as a western U.S. phenomenon. Further, the group was wise to begin enlisting consumers on its side. Currently, with about 30,000 of them, the coalition is more broad-based and thus is gaining greater credibility.

Meanwhile, one wonders what the companies who juice their birds with sodium, seawater and the like are thinking. The key trends in food consumption in the U.S. are all healthier-oriented, including a move away from additives, increased sodium and the like.

On the economics front, these companies can charge less for a "juiced" bird. But, even if consumers pay less per-pound for one than they do for a real "natural" bird, it isn't a fair comparison. In other words, is a chicken that sells for $1.49 pound, with 15% of its content comprised of sodium and water, a better deal than one that sells for $1.99 pound but is pure bird--no water, no sodium, no seaweed? We sure think the latter chicken is its a better value--both in economic terms as well as in health, taste and nutritional terms.

Bill Mattos, who is the president of the Modesto, California-based California Poultry Federation, and is the chief spokesman for the Truthful Labeling Coalition, wrote an Op Ed piece last week, which was published in a number of McClatchy Co.-owned newspapers. His piece summarizes the natural poultry labeling issue fairly well, and offers the coalition's reasons and arguments for working to get Congress to change current labeling laws, so that "natural" at least more closely resembles what "natural" really means. (You can read Mattos' piece here.)

We believe that as more and more consumers find out about this chicken-juicing process, they will become angry and demand that it stop, or at least many will stop buying the birds.

It's true that in most cases, the really cheap birds--those you see on sale for 79 or 99 cents pound--are these "juiced" birds. For many consumers, its hard to pass up these type of prices. However, if many of these consumers actually knew that the birds they are buying for these low prices have as much as 15% of their total weight comprised of water, sodium and other additives, we think it's likely they would be willing to pay a slightly higher premium per-pound for more natural birds without these additives.

By allowing poultry producers and marketers to slap the "all-natural" label on these "juiced" birds, the Federal Government is doing a disservice to U.S. consumers. When these shoppers see that "all natural" label on the chickens it serves as an assurance--a false one in this case--that the U.S. government is assuring that nothing has been added to the birds. (Perhaps the coalition should also consider a legal challenge to this law in court. It smacks of untruthful labeling in many respects.)

Lastly, by allowing this practice to remain law, and to continue in the marketplace, the Federal Government also is stacking the deck against those poultry producers who don't "juice" the chickens they sell. They deserve to be able to call their birds "natural" if they really are. On the other hand, those who choose to add sodium, water and other additives to their chickens have the right to do so--and shoppers have the right to buy them--but they shouldn't have the right to falsely label them as "all-natural." Take that label off, and then let the market sort out the choices.

Read a related story, "FDA refuses to define natural," from today's Natural Foods Merchandiser online.

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