Politics & Government

California's Boxer says chicken labels should disclose saline 'plumping'

WASHINGTON — California Sen. Barbara Boxer and poultry producers on Wednesday called for stricter labeling so that consumers know when their chicken is stuffed with salt water.

About 30 percent of the poultry sold nationwide is injected with saline solution, in a process called "plumping." Currently, the Agriculture Department allows this plumped-up poultry to be labeled as "all natural."

"Consumers are getting ripped off," Boxer said. "There is nothing natural about chicken that is injected with sodium additives."

Joined by Bill Mattos of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation and Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Boxer said the Agriculture Department should prohibit calling plumped chicken "all natural" and insist on more prominent labels to note the use of saline injections.

Agriculture Department rules permit labeling statements such as "Enhanced with up to 15 percent chicken broth" to be printed in typeface that's only one-quarter the size of the product name.

"For Californians, and for California poultry producers, they don't think that's natural at all," Mattos said of the sodium injections. "We call it adulterated."

Boxer, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year, characterized the proposed labeling changes as a consumer-protection measure. Consumers end up paying more for chicken that weighs more because it's been injected with salty water.

But the proposal made on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, complete with charts and demonstration chicken, also has an interstate competitive element. Foster Farms and other producers represented by the California Poultry Federation do not use plumping.

Firms that do, such as Arkansas-based Tyson Foods and Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride, are based outside of California.

"We comply with the rules as they are currently written," Pilgrim's Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson said Wednesday.

Atkinson added that "our enhanced formula has been carefully developed to maximize flavor and tenderness while minimizing sodium levels."

The Californians and non-Californians each tout separate polls to support their respective arguments. Atkinson cited a study that found four out of five customers preferred the "natural enhanced products" because they are "plump, juicy and tender."

The California producers, in turn, cited a 2004 study that found two-thirds of consumers who purchased "plumped-up" poultry were unaware it contained added solution. A 2006 survey found 91 percent of consumers agreed that chicken labeled as "natural" should not contain added ingredients.

California lawmakers have been making similar arguments for several years, periodically bombarding the Agriculture Department with letters in hopes of spurring action.