Wednesday, January 16, 2008
A Mississippi poultry processing company will spend the upcoming congressional session in Washington pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce its definition of "natural" on poultry products, according to its president.
Lampkin Butts, president of Sanderson Farms in Laurel, said his company and the Truthful Labeling Coalition want the USDA to crack down on the "100% all natural" label, claiming competitors are increasing profits by weighing down its poultry products with additives.
"Our competitors used to use a phosphate as an additive, but USDA would not let them use the word 'natural' on their product if they used (the phosphate)," Butts said. "We were using the natural label prominently in our advertising, and we pointed out in humorous ways that some of our competition's product wasn't natural. So after about two years of that, both companies came back, took the phosphate out and replaced it with sea salt and/or carrageen, and convinced the USDA to let them use 'natural' on their products. We're lobbying the USDA to say, 'This is not 'natural;' it never has been, and it's misleading to the consumer to call it that.'"
The battle over the definition raged in Washington last year with coalition members parading outside the Capitol in chicken suits, arguing that Tyson Foods Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., the two largest processors in the nearly $60 billion poultry industry, were watering down their brand with additives and calling it "natural." The USDA first addressed the issue in 2006 when Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp. complained its competition was labeling deli meats as "natural," even though they contained preservatives to extend their shelf life. Hormel eventually sued the USDA over the labeling issue last year.
Butts and the Truthful Labeling Coalition want the USDA to force all additional chemicals that manufacturers add to poultry to be displayed prominently on the package. Butts also wants the USDA to scrutinize the "raised without antibiotics" claims on some labels.
"If it's bone-in type meat, they run it through a machine with thousands of needles, and the needles add the solution—be it salt and water or seaweed—they're pumping it with as much as 15 percent added to its weight," Butts said. "At the end of the day, if they sell that product at an increased price because of weight, they make a nice profit. We and other people in the coalition feel the consumer prefers a product without weight-adjusting additives."
Ray Atkinson, director of corporate communication for Pilgrim's Pride of Texas, defends the process, saying customers prefer "enhanced" versions of their products over the un-enhanced meats.
"Grocery stores have been asking for our enhanced or marinated products," Atkinson said. "People want it. In blind taste tests, four out of five consumers preferred our 100 percent natural enhanced product over our competitor's non-enhanced product because it's more juicy, plump and tender; it's more tolerant of high cooking temperatures; and it's easier to prepare. We offer both enhanced and un-enhanced versions, but if four out of five say they want it enhanced, we make sure we produce that."
Atkinson defended the additives used in the process as worthy of the "natural" label that the USDA allows.
"Our additives are within the USDA's definition," Atkinson said. "We use chicken broth, salt and carrageen. We don't use any binders, carriers, MSG, soy—none of that. All of our fresh, skinless chicken items feature the American Heart Association's heart check-mark seal of approval."
While a package of Pilgrim's Pride boneless chicken breasts does sport the AHA's seal of approval, the enhancements nearly double sodium content. A package of untreated Tyson's chicken, without enhancement, contains only 180 milligrams of sodium per serving; with the enhancement, sodium content rises to 330 milligrams.
Butts agreed with Atkinson that the USDA currently views the components of Pilgrim's Pride's marinade as natural, but added that this was precisely why the USDA needed to further define the "natural" label, saying the additive qualifies as "unnatural" if it didn't originally come with the chicken.
"Chicken broth and sea salt don't belong in a chicken. You can add seaweed (carrageen), and sure they can say seaweed occurs naturally in the ocean, but it doesn't occur naturally in chicken," Butts said.
“Chicken broth and sea salt don’t belong in a chicken. You can add seaweed (carrageen), and sure they can say seaweed occurs naturally in the ocean, but it doesn’t occur naturally in chicken,” Butts said. LOL