August 9, 2006
The Customer Wants a Juicy Steak? Just Add Water
By MARIAN BURROS
EACH day it's becoming less likely that the meat you buy in the supermarket is just meat. After spending years breeding cattle, pigs and poultry to be leaner, the food industry has been injecting meat with water, salt and chemicals to replace the flavor and restore the tenderness that was lost with the fat.
Companies say the process, called enhancement or deep marination, helps shoppers by flavoring the meat so they don't have to. It has been done to turkeys and hams for years, and to other meats since 2000.
"This way we make sure consumers have a pleasurable eating experience even if they do a poor job of cooking the meat," said Justin Hanlon, chief operating officer of Pine Ridge Farms, a pork processor in Des Moines.
But the process allows the industry to charge meat prices for water; to charge the same price -- sometimes more -- for cheaper grades of meat; and to add more salt than many people need or want.
Dr. Christine M. Bruhn, director of the center for consumer research at the University of California, Davis, said shoppers are paying for water without knowing it.
In six of seven supermarkets I visited in New York, Washington and Newport, Vt., enhanced meat cost as much as untreated meat, or more. Packages of treated and untreated Shady Brook Farms skinless and boneless turkey meat were $4.99 a pound at each of two stores in Washington. The label of the enhanced product said that it contained a "10 percent solution of turkey broth, salt, and sugar" and that it had 25 grams of protein in a four-ounce serving. The untreated meat had 28 grams of protein per serving. So the actual meat in the treated turkey cost about 12 percent more a pound.
At Giant supermarkets in Washington, enhanced and plain skinless and boneless chicken breasts cost $3.99 a pound. But after accounting for just the protein, the treated meat cost 13 percent more.
Mark Klein, a spokesman for the meat division of Cargill, which owns Shady Brook Farms, said the price of the enhanced turkey "depends on what the market is willing to bear."
A study done for the meat industry in 2004 found that 45 percent of the pork in retail stores was enhanced, as was 23 percent of the chicken and 16 percent of the beef.
The increased use of enhancement, which can quadruple the amount of sodium in meat, has coincided with calls by health professionals for the food industry to reduce much of the sodium it adds to food. In June the American Medical Association declared that the sodium content of processed foods and foods sold in restaurants should be reduced by 50 percent.
The medical association also wants the Food and Drug Administration to revoke the designation of salt as a safe additive and to require a warning label on processed foods that have high levels of sodium.
Meats are naturally low in sodium. But nutrition labels for enhanced meat show that they can have as much as 540 milligrams of sodium in a four-ounce portion. The federal government's dietary guidelines say that people who have high blood pressure, African-Americans and people over 50 should have no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day; for them, 540 milligrams is more than a third the daily allowance. Even for those not at risk for high blood pressure, that amount constitutes almost a quarter of the allowance of 2,300 milligrams.
Along with salt and water, the process can add chemicals like sodium phosphate, which helps the meat retain the added water when it is cooked, and sodium lactate or potassium lactate to extend the shelf life by inhibiting bacteria.
Even with the antibacterial agents, three cases of infections with the deadly bacterium E. coli O157:H7 were tied to enhanced products that were processed through machines using fine needles to tenderize or enhance meat. The Agriculture Department last year told plants using those needles -- which leave no visible trace -- to adjust their safety plans to take into account the potential for contamination.
The department requires any meat product with added liquid to be clearly labeled with language such as "beef tenderloin with up to 15 percent added solution'' or "boneless chicken breast with up to 20 percent of a flavoring solution of water, spices, sugar and phosphates,'' said Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the agency. The label must also have a nutrition-facts panel.
But the labeling I saw was in very small type and often in an obscure place. The labels on some Cryovac packages of enhanced spareribs were in a folded-over portion of the packaging. On some meat products it is not there at all.
The label on a package of house-brand pork chops at a Super Fresh store in Washington said it was "enhanced with up to 10 percent water, salt and sodium phosphate" but had no nutrition information. A spokesman for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the parent of Super Fresh, said the information was above the meat case. It wasn't, though if it had been there and not on the package, its positioning would have been a violation of federal regulations.
The lack of clarity in labeling can affect millions of people on low-salt diets. But care in the reading of labels is essential for others too. Marinating, brining or use of a seasoning rub on enhanced meat often produces salty or hammy-tasting food .
When I tried enhanced pork and poultry I found them tender, tasteless and salty. Modern poultry and pork don't have much taste to begin with, and enhancement seems to dilute it even further.
Many people have no choice about whether to eat enhanced meat. Custom-cut meat is being rapidly replaced in supermarkets by case-ready meat, enhanced and packaged by processors.
Wal-Mart, for example, says a majority of its fresh offerings are enhanced with a 6 to 12 percent solution of water, salt, sodium phosphate and natural flavorings.