October 9, 2008

Meat Eaters to Pay for Water Added to Beef, Poultry

By John Simerman

In the land of fruits and nuts, your meat is just a bit too meaty for Uncle Sam.

Beef and poultry lovers in California will get less fresh meat, pound for pound, under a federal rule change that requires the state to use the same weighing method as the rest of the country. The change, which starts today, will mean about 1.4 percent less beef for the money, and about 2.35 percent less chicken -- about a dollar per week for meat-happy families, according the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

For years, the state has forced meat and chicken sellers to exclude the heft of liquid in the packaging when it weighs and prices beef and chicken. That "wet tare" method -- separating the water weight -- led meat processors to overpack their beef and chicken products to account for moisture loss. Consumers got that much more to chew on for the price, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state agency.

The rest of the country, meanwhile, is ruled under a "dry tare" method that includes the weight of free-flowing liquids in the packaging -- natural fluids or water from the cleaning and cooling process. California already uses the dry tare method for meats with bonus liquid, such as ribs slathered in barbecue sauce or poultry in a brine solution.

"As a consumer, you win by knowing whatever you buy that is governed by measurements -- which is almost everything -- that they're measured uniformly. You're not going to be buying something in California that's measured differently in Oregon or Nevada," Lyle said. "You can make a fair market comparison. We think that is important."

Some shoppers had a beef.

"More of the same. The public's going to be paying more for less," said Bruce Fontenrose of Walnut Creek as he shopped at Safeway on Wednesday. "It doesn't seem like government has our vested interest. It has industry's vested interest."

The National Chicken Council and the California Poultry Federation pushed for the change. Federation President Bill Mattos said the switch helps level competition between fresh chicken producers and out-of-state companies that ship "enhanced chickens" to retailers like Wal-Mart. Those chickens, a growing leg of the poultry market, are "pumped with saltwater and other ingredients, like seaweed," he said. "People are paying for 15 percent salt and water." Enhanced chickens are weighed using the dry tare method.

"It's fair," said Mattos of the change. "We're not talking about a lot of money here."

A federal Department of Agriculture spokesman said the agency was simply conforming with a directive under another federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

One place where meat-lovers won't feel the pinch is the butcher counter.

"There isn't that packaging dynamic," Lyle said. "You're just buying what they are weighing in front of you."

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or [email protected]

Originally published by John Simerman, Contra Costa Times.

(c) 2008 Oakland Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.