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The increased sodium content of enhanced poultry products could limit their use by consumers trying to stay within dietary guidelines for sodium consumption.
on September 2, 2010

Deciphering the ‘natural poultry’ debate

Controversy continues within the poultry industry over what constitutes ‘natural’ poultry while the USDA reconsiders the definition.

Major broiler processors disagree on what the definition for “natural” fresh ready-to-cook (RTC) chicken products should be, and the USDA is now reviewing the regulations that define “natural” poultry. What is at stake for the U.S. poultry industry in this debate is the roughly $2 billion per year that consumers are now paying at retail for the added weight of enhancing solutions used in some fresh chicken products.

Key points in the “natural” debate hinge on use of “natural” for single- versus multi-ingredient products and the size of the type face used on the label.

Current USDA FSIS policy states that products bearing “natural” claims must not contain any artificial or synthetic ingredients or chemical preservatives, and can be no more than “minimally processed.”

Enhanced products  

In the last decade, a number of “Natural,” “All-Natural” and “100% Natural” label claims have been approved for meat and poultry products which have been injected, vacuum tumbled or marinated with a variety of broth or brine solutions up to 15% of the weight of the meat. These fresh ready-to-cook (RTC) injected meat and poultry products are commonly referred to as “enhanced” products.

Market share in the fresh meat case for enhanced products has grown rapidly. Industry estimates put the 2008 market share for enhanced fresh pork, chicken and beef at 53%, 31% and 19%, respectively.

Single- or multi-ingredient?  

One point of contention in the natural poultry debate is whether the term “natural” should be reserved just for chicken and turkey without any additives.

Foster Farms, Sanderson Farms, Gold’n Plump and Fieldale Farms are members of the Truthful Labeling Coalition (TLC). Comments signed by executives of the four companies and submitted to FSIS, included this statement: “We believe it is wrong and deceitful to allow fresh chicken to be labeled ‘100% All Natural’ when it contains additives such as seaweed and saltwater.”

Many of the solutions used to enhance poultry contain carrageenan, a seaweed extract which binds water. Perdue is also pushing for the USDA to reserve the term “natural” for single-ingredient fresh chicken and turkey products. “Under no circumstances do we believe it is acceptable to label fresh poultry that has been enhanced with water, broth or solutions as 100% Natural or All Natural,” said Luis A. Luna, vice president, corporate communications, Perdue Inc.

Use of natural ingredients  

Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride support the current USDA interpretation which allows for multi-ingredient fresh chicken and turkey products to be labeled as “natural.”

Gary Rhodes, vice president, corporate communications and investor relations, Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., said, “Pilgrim’s supports the use of the ‘natural’ label as [currently] defined by USDA. We provide both marinated and non-marinated ‘all natural’ products. At this time USDA defines ‘all natural’ as being a product that does not contain any artificial flavor, color, chemical preservatives or any artificial or synthetic ingredient, and is minimally processed.”

Gary Mickelson, Tyson, Inc. spokesman, said, “Our 100% All Natural Marinated Fresh Chicken bears a USDA-approved label and includes no artificial ingredients. This product line includes chicken, chicken broth, sea salt and natural flavor. A Tyson-sponsored national study found that a majority of consumers find it acceptable for some natural ingredients to be added to products and still be labeled or called natural.”

In contrast, Luna said that in focus groups consumers have told Perdue that “all natural” means nothing else added.

Font size for ingredient statement  

Multi-ingredient products can be labeled as “natural” if the manner of processing and the ingredients have been found to be acceptable by the USDA.

Current regulations say that a statement on the label about enhancement solution must only be at least 25% of the size of the most prominent letter in the product name. The statement describing the ingredients in the enhancement solution, if printed at the minimum size, can be difficult to read on labels. Some consumer groups and the TLC claim that the statements are so difficult to read that they lead to confusion for consumers.

Luna said, “If consumers want something that is enhanced then they should know it is enhanced, if they want something that is ‘all natural,’ then they should be able to know it has nothing added. Consumers should know what they are buying, and if they are being misled in any way that is not good for the consumers or for those who would be selling them product.”

Benefits of enhancement  

One thing that the poultry industry can agree upon is that enhanced chicken can be a little more forgiving for the cook. It is harder to dry the meat out, so it is harder to overcook from a taste standpoint.

Mickelson said, “Based on our research, tenderness and juiciness are the two most important attributes to consumers preparing fresh chicken. Many consumers are also aware that marinating chicken significantly enhances these attributes and so they have a desire to buy fresh chicken that is pre-marinated.”

Even experienced chefs recognize the benefits of brining for chickens and turkeys. While most brines utilize flavoring agents and sweeteners in addition to water and salt, brining and enhancement are similar in many respects.

Poultry’s health halo  

Some of the growth in per capita poultry consumption in the U.S. can certainly be attributed to the health halo that poultry meat enjoys when compared to red meat. Chicken and turkey are both lower in fat and cholesterol than red meat. With revised dietary guidelines expected to be released later this year, the sodium content of poultry meat products are expected to be brought under greater scrutiny.

Unseasoned chicken and turkey meat are relatively low in sodium when compared to other commonly eaten foods (See Table, “Sodium content of selected foods”). Enhanced chicken products, however, can have between three and nine times as much sodium as unseasoned chicken.

2010 dietary guidelines  

While the 2005 U.S. dietary guidelines call for consumption of less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day by adults, the advisory panel for the 2010 dietary guidelines has recommended that daily sodium intake be reduced to 1,500 milligrams per day. Many adults consume significantly more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium now and bringing consumption down to 1,500 milligrams will not be easy.

The report of the advisory committee specifically identifies enhanced pork, poultry and fish products as “a major new concern.” The sodium content of these products is considered to be “excessive” and the report goes on to say, “efforts to quantify the amount of sodium from this type of processing are warranted.”

See the report of the advisory committee for 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

One point of contention in the natural poultry debate is whether the term “natural” should be reserved just for chicken and turkey without any additives.
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