Currently, approximately thirty percent of all fresh chicken sold to consumers in the U.S. has been pumped-up (either through injection or vacuum tumbling) with a significant percentage of water, sodium, binding agents like carrageenan (a seaweed extract), and other additives. Yet under current FSIS policy, this pumped-up chicken is being labeled as 100% Natural.The issue has won recent major media attention, including blog coverage in January, a Washington Post article last fall, and CBS evening news coverage in November.
In part, the issue is in the media because chicken businesses that really do use the term "natural" in a somewhat more restrictive sense have put money into public relations and lobbying, to press USDA for closer oversight. (Sigh. Is this really what progress requires?)
The Truthful Labeling Coalition (see image below), a coalition of some public interest folks and parts of the poultry industry, has been pressing hard on the salt water injections, and also on questions about whether some competitors' poultry is incorrectly labeled "raised without antibiotics." From the fact sheet they sent by email this week:
Under federal law, the USDA is required to ensure that food labels are neither false nor misleading.The coalition says it doesn't oppose ionophores per se, but it just wants them labeled correctly as antibiotics. The ionophores themselves can be "good or bad," the coalition says.
Consumers certainly don’t expect poultry labeled “Raised Without Antibiotics” to have been fed or treated with any type of medicine classified as an antibiotic.
In the past year, the USDA has unfortunately made a series of inconsistent and contradictory decisions on fresh poultry labels relating to the use of ionophores – a substance added to chicken feed to help fight disease that both the USDA and FDA consider to be an antibiotic. For example, some poultry companies who use ionophores in chicken feed have mistakenly received approval from USDA for labels bearing the “Raised Without Antibiotics” claim.
Industry divisions over food labeling rules are common, and this type of public information campaign in cooperation with public interest groups happens occasionally. But there are risks from the perspective of participating poultry producers, even if they really do produce chickens that are somewhat closer to natural. Within the public's short attention span, it is difficult to tar one's opponents without having some of the feathers stick to one's own skin, so to speak.