Those chicken breasts and thighs for sale in the grocery meat case might not be all bird, and consumer advocates say few shoppers know it.
Processors have been injecting some fresh poultry with up to 15 percent water, salt and elements of seaweed in recent years because, they say, it makes the meat taste better and government regulators allow it.
But critics say almost a third of the chicken Americans now buy has the additives, so it costs consumers more when it's sold by the pound and pumps more unhealthy sodium into their meals.
A coalition of consumer and health groups, lawmakers and some processors are pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is rewriting rules for food labeling, to stop companies from calling meat with additives "100 percent natural." And they want to force companies to enlarge the fine print on their packaging so consumers are more likely to notice what they are buying.
"I assumed it was all chicken," said Dave Alter of Baltimore, who picked up a package at a local Safeway recently that was injected with chicken broth and other additives. "I never noticed anything on the label. ... I certainly don't want more sodium."
For the most part, processors acknowledge that the labels are confusing and are not fighting changes. But they are split on whether it's OK to say chicken is natural when it's infused with salt water, or "chicken broth" as it's sometimes called.
The processors call chicken with additives "enhanced" and have been selling such products for about four years. But some companies began labeling it natural in 2005. That's when USDA approved the companies' use of naturally derived elements for boosting flavor and moisture, said Julie Greenstein, deputy director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In Maryland, fresh poultry has become the biggest segment of the farm economy, worth a half-billion dollars in sales in 2005, or a third of farm sales. Growers dot the Eastern Shore, and Perdue Farms Inc., one of the nation's largest poultry companies, is based in Salisbury.
Chicken is the meat of choice in many U.S. households, and that makes the labeling issue especially pressing, Greenstein and others said. Americans ate an average of 88 pounds of chicken last year, compared with 39 pounds 30 years ago, according to industry data.
But the critics estimate that consumers are paying more than $2 billion a year for such fresh chicken and getting salt water. The chicken also contains up to eight times the amount of salt per serving - about 370 milligrams of sodium versus 45 milligrams, in a four-ounce serving of skinless, boneless chicken breast.
Processors use USDA guidelines from 1982 that were tweaked in 2005. Those guidelines say natural food is minimally processed and contains nothing artificial or synthetic and no coloring or preservatives. Changes in food technology have muddied terms over time, and support for a modern, formal definition has picked up steam, even in the industry.
Hormel Foods Corp. petitioned USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in October to rewrite the label rules for sliced deli meats made from poultry and other meat. Though other meats are injected with additives, poultry and pork are enhanced most often and labeled natural. Some Hormel competitors were using sodium lactate, a known preservative, but calling the product natural.
Federal officials expect to propose some rules and solicit comments in the fall, but an agency spokesman said they aren't prepared to say what the new guidelines will include.
A big critic of the natural labels has been one of the chicken industry's own, Laurel, Miss.-based processor Sanderson Farms Inc. Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer, said he's hoping the USDA acts fast to clear up the confusion. It's a competition issue. If shoppers know he doesn't enhance his chicken, he'll sell more than those who do.
But he said consumers can't easily tell the difference because injected chicken looks the same. Shoppers have to inspect the packaging for small type or check the back of the package for sodium content.
"We had complained in Washington to no avail," he said. "The Hormel petition opened the book for USDA to consider their policies on what is 'natural.' ... We're hoping they can sit down and write a reasonable policy with the consumer in mind and not drag this out two or three years."
Meanwhile, companies say they plan to continue enhancing meats they sell because consumers prefer it.
Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, one of the nation's largest processors, said the company agrees that USDA needs to update the definition of natural so consumers understand what they are buying. But he said consumers will accept some naturally derived elements in their chicken for better taste, and the company should still be allowed to label it natural.
The company refers to its chicken with additives such as chicken broth, sea salt and natural flavor as marinated.
"Surveys show that consumers prefer marinated chicken over conventional chicken," he said "An increasing number tell us they want all natural chicken, yet prefer the taste and juiciness of marinated product. Marinated chicken is more forgiving for the home cook because it turns out tender and juicy."
Perdue says it also believes in allowing consumers to decide what to buy, so long as the label does not confuse them. The company has been enhancing some of its chicken since 2003, under the brand Tender & Tasty, but does not call it natural. Officials want the rules to ban others from calling similar products natural.
"We do not believe it is acceptable to label 'enhanced' fresh poultry as '100 percent natural' or 'all natural' under any circumstance," said Julie DeYoung, a Perdue spokeswoman.
Some lawmakers wrote to the USDA in May about changing the policy. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee's panel on horticulture and organic agriculture, and Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., a Mississippi Republican, called on USDA to make swift changes to the natural label rules.
"Given the magnitude of this deception on consumers' food budgets and its health implications with regard to sodium, we expect USDA to use its authority to quickly put an end to these misleading labels," the letter said.
And consumers, including William Rajaram of Baltimore, do say the labels are misleading. He recently picked up a package of chicken injected with "15 percent chicken broth" and didn't notice the added sodium because he only looked at the protein and fat content.
"That sodium makes me not want it," he said. "It's unhealthy for me, but it could be devastating to someone with high blood pressure. The wording should be bigger, definitely."