Photo: hectorir, Flickr
Say you're in the meat aisle at the grocery store, choosing a chicken for tonight's dinner. The first bird claims to be "natural"; the next one doesn't. You put the first bird in your cart -- but are you getting what you think you're getting?
"Natural," according to the US Department of Agriculture, does not equal "unadulterated." Per the USDA, poultry can be labeled "natural" if it contains no artificial ingredients, preservatives, or added color. However, this leaves a lot of room for other additives, such as salt, water, or broth (all perfectly natural ingredients). Sometimes these additives can increase the bird's weight by upwards of 15 percent, according to the Associated Press -- which strikes some politicians and consumer advocates as (you guessed it) unnatural.
One politician pushing for more clarity in labeling is California Senator Barbara Boxer. In a statement last spring, Boxer pointed out that hidden sodium in a chicken misleadingly called "natural" creates a public health risk. "[T]here is nothing 'all natural' about chicken injected with sodium additives," she maintained. "Consider that a serving of poultry unaltered by additives contains about 40 to 65 milligrams of sodium, while sodium injected chicken can contain more than 330 mgs of sodium – five to eight times more salt per serving than a real natural chicken."
Boxer is hardly alone. In fact, a throng of like-minded chicken producers, including the poultry powerhouse Perdue, have formed the Truthful Labeling Coalition, a group dedicated to push the USDA to allow only chicken with no additives to call itself "natural." "Consumers buy $40 billion of fresh chicken each year with the belief that it's healthy and natural," TLC's website points out. "But some chicken companies are pumping up their chickens with added sodium, saltwater and other ingredients."
Not incidentally, a couple of those other chicken companies are Perdue's main competitors, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride. Both companies have defended their practices to the press. "We offer both 100 percent natural enhanced and non-enhanced fresh chicken," Pilgrim's Pride spokesperson Gary Rhodes told the AP. "It really depends on what the customer wants. It's all about choice." Be that as it may, the USDA has reportedly agreed to take a closer look at its labeling policies this fall.
Related: Choosing Chicken, Chicken Recipes