‘Enhanced’ Meat: The Hidden Salt We’re Consuming

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Even if you see the word "natural," read labels to determine whether meat has been pumped with salt-water "broth."
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Needle-injected meat is sodium-heavy and a high-risk carrier of E. coli.

It’s labeled “all natural,” you say? You may still have paid good money for 12 to 15 percent added salt water.

Before you take a bite out of that plump roast, grilled chicken breast or juicy steak, you may want to make sure your meat isn’t biting you back. That one serving of meat on your plate may contain enough added salt to equal that of a large serving of fast-food french fries. Processed food masquerading as fresh and, particularly, as “safe,” is today’s supermarket butcher-counter trend.

Plumped and Enhanced Meat

Consumer Reports sounded the alarm on “plumped” chicken back in 2008, when it revealed chickens from some big-name producers that are labeled “natural” are often pumped full of a salt-water solution, raising sodium content to unhealthy levels. Moreover, $1.50 of the price tag per package is salt water. But the plumping practice doesn’t end there, nor is it limited to chicken.

The demand for leaner meats has often translated to tougher and less flavorful cuts. Taking a page from the chicken processors’ book, beef and pork processors began pumping liquids into their meat to offset poor texture and taste. Although often called “broth,” the key ingredients in these fluids are water, salt and usually an antimicrobial. Meat processors inject the salt-water solution deep into the meat tissue to add “juiciness” — and weight — to the final product. This “enhanced” meat can still be labeled “natural.”

The Cost of Meat: From Your Pocket to Theirs

Although Big Ag industry representatives would argue that consumer demand for lean but tender meat is the driving force behind enhanced meat, the financial result of customers paying for salt water instead of meat is clearly substantial. In a National Cattleman’s Beef Association fact sheet, Chance Brooks, associate professor of meat science at Texas Tech University, wrote, “The addition of water also increases yield, which is important to processors because of economic advantages that offset production costs.”

Health Risks of Enhanced Meat

One serving of supermarket enhanced beef meets a good portion of your daily recommended sodium intake, which is between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams. Just one 3-ounce serving of typical injected beef contains approximately 1,800 milligrams of sodium. Needle-injected meat has also been red-flagged by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) as a high-risk carrier of E. coli. The needles that insert the salt solution can push bacteria on the surface (where bacteria is typically found) deep into the meat, where cooking may not kill them. To prevent this, FSIS recommends (not requires) that processors apply “an allowed antimicrobial agent to the surface of the product prior to processing.” These approved agents include a number of ingredients (and processes such as irradiation) that most consumers would likely find far from “natural.”

The good news: Processors are required by law to disclose somewhere on the label whether the meat you’re buying has been pumped with a salt-water solution. Be aware that even designations such as “natural,” “fresh” and “100% beef” do not automatically mean the meat hasn’t been pumped. Look for small type, usually on the front of the package near the product name, which may read something like: “Contains up to 15% broth.” To find truly natural meat, consult websites such as Local Harvest, and check your farmers market or natural grocer to source meats from pastured and grass-fed animals that are naturally leaner to begin with.

Waterlogged Industrial Meat

A pork shoulder weighing 9.25 pounds costs $2.08 per pound (retail); the amount you are paying for salt water is $2.31.

Three pounds of chicken breasts costs $3.08 per pound (retail); the amount you are paying for salt water is $1.39.

Four NY strip steaks costs $13 per pound (retail); the amount you are paying for salt water is $3.90.