In 2011, the Food Safety and Inspection Service issued rules for the labeling of meat and poultry products treated by injection or tumbling with an added solution of brine, which may or may not also contain flavoring ingredients.
Processors dutifully followed those rules, but many quickly seized on the term “enhanced” to designate product containing added solutions. Can you blame them? “Enhanced” sounds a heck of a lot more palatable than “”injected.”
But overall, the regs didn’t clarify the agency’s original intent: that consumers should quickly and clearly determine what they’re buying. A re-write was ordered, because as FSIS officials noted in the wording of the agency’s revised final rule on Dec. 23, 2014, “The labels of meat and poultry products must be truthful and not misleading, and the labels must accurately disclose to consumers what they are buying when they purchase any meat or poultry product.”
FSIS also removed the standard-of-identity regulation for “ready-to-cook poultry products to which solutions are added,” with the new rule prohibiting use of the word “enhanced” in the product name appearing on package labels.
Nobody disagrees with any of that, outside of a few truly crooked operators, who, if they don’t run afoul of the inspectors, generally put themselves out of business with their disreputable tactics.
Enter the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the high-profile advocacy group that finds fault with virtually every ingredient used in commercial food processing. CSPI was one of the petitioners demanding that FSIS toughen the rules on labeling “enhanced” meat and poultry, but despite getting what it wanted, still found it necessary to lash out at processors, issuing a statement last week that read in part:
“FSIS’s new rules, aimed at informing consumers and reducing deception, will make it clear to shoppers that many meat and poultry products are adulterated, not enhanced, with high percentages of salty solutions. According to USDA, about 60 percent of all raw meat and poultry products are injected with or soaked in a salty solution that dilutes the products with water and pollutes them with sodium. That sodium increases blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and strokes.”
Let’s stop right there and acknowledge that labeling injected fresh meat or poultry products in a manner that, while consistent with regulations, nevertheless pretends that consumers are getting 100% meat is questionable, if not necessarily deceptive. At best, it’s a variation on the “suggested retail price” gambit: Prices are marked up significantly, then discounted by a substantial percentage. It’s not illegal, but it’s not exactly full disclosure, either.
Then again, it’s always caveat emptor in the marketplace, and truth be told, people prefer the taste and juiciness of meat or poultry with added moisture. What’s the No. 1 complaint that consumers have about meat or poultry? Too dry, no flavor. How do you fix that? The easiest way is with marination, after which you have a product that is not adulterated, but enhanced with an added solution.
And it cooks better to boot.
Hypocrisy in the highest
More to the point, CSPI complained that while USDA allows certain fresh meat and poultry products to contain as much as 40% added solution (by weight), “You can bet that the processors don’t reduce their prices by a similar amount.”
First of all, injecting brine, while certainly less expensive per pound than whole-muscle meat, isn’t free. The equipment needed to do so efficiently is quite expensive, and the solutions themselves represent an ongoing added cost, albeit a modest one.
But to insist that processors should be expected to adhere to a 1:1 price reduction — for every percentage point of added solution, the price-per-pound goes down by a similar percentage — is ridiculous and betrays an abysmal (and willful) ignorance of marketplace economics.
Activists like CSPI and its outspoken leader Dr. Michael Jacobsen, however, are contemptuous of the businesses and openly critical of companies focused on earning a profit. They live in the non-profit world and collect their handsome salaries in large measure from the donations of supporters who hand over a piece of the earnings they receive from for-profit companies.
In other worlds, the better the business climate, the more lucrative CSPI’s fund-raising becomes. But a little hypocrisy never stopped a dedicated activist from attempting to seize the moral high ground, and CSPI is no different from its animal rights or pro-vegetarian brethren in that regard.
Finally, CSPI’s statement gets to the real thorn in their collectives sides: salt. Jacobsen in particular hates salt and blames its presence in processed foods as the cause of numerous chronic diseases. It’s kind of an added bonus in the fight over labeling fresh meat products with added solutions: While crabbing about economic justice in the meat case, they get to push CSPI’s other agenda of demonizing the food industry’s too-liberal (in their opinion) use of salt.
Too bad CSPI’s reliability as a nutritional lodestar is near zero, thanks to a decades-long crusade against saturated fat, which conveniently served as a stand-in for denouncing the consumption of red meat. In an effort to convince Americans that animal fat was a killer, CSPI aggressively pushed for the substitution of vegetable oils. Which resulted in the creation of trans fats. Which were eventually determined to be extremely unhealthy, if not downright carcinogenic. Which resulted in CSPI cranking up another crusade to ban trans fats.
The group’s about-face doesn’t cause its leaders to lose a single second of sleep, because their mission isn’t about fostering ways to make people healthier.
Its bottom line is finding ways to attack the business community’s bottom line as a means to keep the donations rolling in from the legions of suckers who believe they operate in the public interest.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.