It’s rare to find Perdue on the right side of an animal welfare issue, but don’t fret: it’s only because its two biggest competitors are on the wrong side, and that is hurting Perdue’s bottom line.
The issue is what it means to label chicken “natural.” Overlooking the fact that there is nothing natural about selling raw corpse-parts in plastic wrapping where people buy actual food, the question at hand is whether it is “natural” to inject said parts with salt, water, “and other ingredients.” Perdue is pissy because the two biggest poultry producers, Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods, inject but still use the “natural” label, while Perdue, coming in at number three, does not inject.
The purpose of injecting salt and other non-chicken substances into chicken carcasses is not to raise consumers’ blood pressure (as far as I know), but to enhance the flavor and appearance of the meat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals, the chicken at the supermarket is the remains of “a drug-stuffed, disease-ridden, shit-contaminated animal.” Injecting salt, water, and whatever else into the meat gives it “what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell, and taste.” It also puts more pennies in the poultry producers’ pockets by charging consumers chicken prices for water weight.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering revising its labeling guidelines to make clear that injecting any non-chicken substance into chicken is not “natural.” If it makes that change, Perdue will gain market share when Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods lose their “natural” labels and consumers who want to eat “natural” meat choose Perdue instead – at least until the two biggest players lose the syringes and earn the “natural” label again.
Changing the labeling guidelines could result in marginally better treatment of chickens while they are alive. Chickens who are properly nourished, not over-drugged, given an environment in which they can maintain their hygiene, and slaughtered humanely will have more flavor and look better without injections. (Or so I’m told by people in the know – as you may have guessed I don’t eat meat myself, and I have very mixed feelings about advancing an argument that the government should do anything because it will make meat taste good.) Changing the labeling guidelines could also make the factory farming of chickens marginally less profitable and therefore perhaps a marginally smaller industry because poultry producers won’t be able to overcharge consumers for water and salt by selling them as chicken.
But then comes the backlash: Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, and agribusiness everywhere will find another way to make up the lost profits, and it will probably come out of the chickens’ hides.