WASHINGTON -- It's a fight that has the nation's large chicken producers squabbling and Sara Lee mixing it up with Farmer John.
The question: When can food products, from chicken breasts to soda pop, rightfully be labeled "natural?"
The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows that word on products where it does not belong, critics say. Pilgrim's Pride Corp., for example, sells "natural" chicken in a solution that contains seaweed extract and other additives.
The critics, including Foster Farms in Livingston, claim the labeling misleads consumers about what is truly natural -- and gives them an unhealthy dose of sodium to boot.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, whose district includes a huge Foster Farms chicken plant, has helped lead efforts to change the rules.
"This misguided policy has enabled some processors to lead consumers into believing they are purchasing unaltered, natural poultry products," Cardoza and 39 other members of Congress wrote to acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner in October. "While we agree that seaweed and sea salt may occur naturally in seawater, these ingredients certainly do not occur naturally in poultry."
Seaweed extract targeted
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is reviewing a request to bar the use of the "natural" label on food with such additives. They include carrageenan, a seaweed extract that helps chicken meat retain moisture.
The agency has not acted on the request. Cardoza has said he might hold a hearing to prod the regulators.
The issue goes beyond chicken. Hormel Foods Corp., maker of lunchmeat under the Farmer John brand, is seeking to keep rivals from using the "natural" label on meat that contains sodium lactate, a flavoring and preservative derived from corn. The Hillshire Farm brand, made by Sara Lee Corp., uses the additive.
Meanwhile, makers of sugar from cane and beets, the traditional sources, are seething about use of the "natural" label on high-fructose corn syrup, which has come to dominate the sweetener industry.
The chicken fight has the most relevance in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where Foster Farms, the leading poultry producer in the West, has most of its operations.
Pilgrim's Pride and Tyson Foods Inc., the main targets of the campaign, say the additives in question are natural. Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said surveys have found that consumers prefer these products because they are tender and juicy.
Still, even Tyson supports revisiting the USDA's definition of "natural." In the meantime, it proposes a two-tier definition -- one for chicken, beef and pork that contains no added ingredients, another for meat prepared with all-natural ingredients.
At stake is a shot at increasing shares in the estimated $13 billion-a-year market for "natural" foods and beverages. Its 4 percent to 5 percent annual growth outpaces that of the overall grocery category, according to Packaged Facts, a market research company.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.