Chicken companies are pulling a fast one on consumers.  In a common practice the industry likes to call ‘enhancing’ or ‘plumping’, chicken is injected with water, salt and other additives to help it stay juicier and more flavorful.   The package may tell you the chicken is “enhanced with chicken broth” – but what’s actually in it, and in what quantities?   You probably won’t find that information on the label, because meat processors aren’t required to tell you.

The problem with this practice is two-fold.  First, consumers don’t know what they’re eating.  As millions of people try to heed doctors’ warnings and abide by a low-sodium diet, they may be unknowingly ingesting way more salt in their meal than they know.   A 4 oz. serving of plain, non-enhanced chicken might have 45 to 70 mg of sodium.  But the ‘enhanced’ version?  Up to 440 mg – about 20% of the recommended daily limit, and that’s before an unwitting chef takes it home to season it even further.

Second, what are we really paying for: chicken or water?  Say you buy a package of boneless chicken breasts at the supermarket for $5.00/lb.   If they’re “enhanced with 15% chicken broth” (as many are) then you’re getting about $4.25 worth of chicken, and $0.75 of water and fillers.   In fact, according to the Truthful Labeling Coalition, “the US government estimates that consumers spend $2 billion per year buying salt water at chicken prices.”  That’s some expensive salt water we’re shelling out for.

So who are the ‘enhancing’ offenders?  Consumer Reports’ own investigating found that Purdue and Pilgrim’s Pride pump up their meat with added water and sodium (in one case, we found chicken with 840 mg of sodium per serving!) and Tyson has also been criticized for this practice in some of its products.  Perhaps even more deceiving for consumers is that some of these companies go so far as to advertise the chicken as ‘all natural’ on the packaging – which has, ahem, ruffled the feathers of some companies that do not engage in the practice of enhancing their chicken, such as Foster Farms (which launched a pretty entertaining ad campaign to tell you about it).

Consumers Union supports better labeling of meat products that have been pumped with these salty solutions.   In our recent comments to the USDA, we request that labels contain “an accurate description of the raw meat or poultry component (e.g. chicken breast, pork tenderloin); the percentage of the added solution using numerical representation and the percent symbol, “%”; and a listing of the ingredients in the solution in descending order of predominance by weight.”

Furthermore, companies should no longer be allowed to use the word ‘enhanced’, which we find “misleading because it suggests that the meat has been improved through the use of added solutions when, in fact, it may actually be less healthy due to the presence of excessive levels of sodium.”

Do you have chicken in your fridge or freezer?  Go check the label and see what it says.  Is it ‘enhanced’?  What’s the sodium content?  Leave us a comment and tell us about it.

And if you think consumers deserve better labeling so we know what’s in our meat (especially when we’re paying chicken prices for salt water), you can tell the USDA about it here.