Mystery Meat No More? USDA Issues New "Enhanced" Meat Guidelines

Buying meat will get a little easier, now that the USDA is making it difficult for meat producers to mask additives.

July 21, 2011

Get what you pay for: New lables will make buying meat at the supermarket a better experience.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It looks like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is finally doing something about "enhanced" meats—those super-tasty turkeys and chickens at the grocery store that have been injected with saltwater and other solutions to make them juicy and tender (and to drive up the price, according to some). On Thursday, the agency announced a proposed rule that would require that any additives or enhancements be clearly stated in the name of the product.


The Details:A little background info: If you aren't familiar with "enhanced" meats, these are products that contain saltwater, sauces, marinades, and other solutions but are packaged similarly to standard fresh meats. (You may be familiar with enhanced turkeys, sold around Thanksgiving, that have been injected with saltwater brines to keep them juicy while roasting.) It's usually difficult to tell enhanced and non-enhanced meats apart because, currently, enhanced meats usually have the same names as meats that don't contain any added solutions. And though the USDA requires that meat producers list any added solutions on a package, that information usually appears in very small print. For instance, a regular chicken breast and an enhanced chicken breast will both be labeled as "chicken breast," despite the fact that the latter contains some percentage of saltwater or other additional solution. According to the USDA, 30 percent of poultry, 15 percent of beef, and 90 percent of pork sold are enhanced in some way.

This is problematic for two reasons:

• People who are trying to avoid sodium may not know that they're buying meat injected with saltwater that drives up sodium content in the meat. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest has calculated that some enhanced meats have more than five times the amount of sodium that naturally occurs in meat. Often, phosphorous and potassium are used as additives, posing problems to people with kidney disease. A study published last year found that enhanced meats contained enough of those two chemicals to trigger a lethal heart condition called hyperkalemia in people suffering from kidney disease.

• Enhancements drive up the price of meat. Some enhanced meats contain as much as 40 percent added solution, and since meats are priced by the pound, you may be paying a lot for saltwater when all you really want is poultry, pork, or beef.

What It Means: The new rule will require meat producers to include any enhancements in the name of the product, so it's obvious what people are buying. An example of a product name under the new rule would be "Chicken breast: 40% added solution of water and teriyaki sauce." The name will need to be in a font, size, and color that make it easily visible. The agency is accepting comments on the rule now, and will continue to do so for 60 days, after which point the requirements will go into effect. In the meantime, buying organic allows you to avoid the issue entirely, as additives are prohibited in organic meat. When that's not an option, check the Nutrition Facts panel if you can't determine whether a meat product is enhanced. Beef and pork should have around 85 milligrams of sodium per 3-ounce serving, and poultry usually has between 60 and 80, with or without the skin. If the sodium levels exceed those amounts, the meat has most likely been treated with additives.

To learn more about enhanced meats, see How to Spot the Hidden Hazard in Your T-Bone Steak.

For tips on finding organic beef and chicken, see our Guide to Buying Grass-Fed Beef, or visit Eat Wild.

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