FLASH: Wal-Mart Super Store beef has 8 – 10 % water added. If you buy a 5 lb rib-eye roast for $6.00/lb, the water tariff will cost you $2.40 at 8%. Some cuts have 10% water added. For every $10 spent, you will be paying $0.80 to $1.00 for added water. How did this happen?
BACKGROUND: For some years now the beef industry had bemoaned the unfair advantage the poultry industry has enjoyed by being able to add some 8% water by weight to chickens as a by product of “rapid chilling” the chicken carcasses. (I’ll bet that you or I could chill a freshly killed chicken in ice water without having the bird absorb up to 8% of its weight in water.)
The beef people have long claimed that this water torture gave the poultry people an unfair advantage, in effect giving them a license to sell water of dubious quality for 50 cents a pound (one billion dollars in 1994 alone) according to Joe Roybal, “Fighting for Fairness”, Beef, November 1, 1997. Such a water subsidy could add 100 lbs to each beef carcass, if allowed. Roybal notes that a suit by Iowa beef producers was finally successful and would lead to new regulations. The judge noted that the cattle people were not asking to add water to their product, but to merely level the playing field.
P. T. BARNUM WAS RIGHT: In February 2001, Mr. Roybal noted that the new labeling would kick in after January 2002 and that poultry would have to lose the 8 –10% water. Well, as it turned out, they were restricted to 7% for chilling, but could, presumably add a bit more for enhancement (think Butterball pre-basting). The cattlemen apparently thought consumers would rebel and that the poultry producer would have to dry out their product. By some estimates the price of raw chicken would rise by $1/lb. It didn’t happen. Consumers just shrugged, told themselves that nothing had changed except the label, and kept buying the cheapest chicken they could find.
Wal-Mart; The Best Price; Always: The lesson was not lost on Big Beef, which decided that they, too, could play that game and they would be able to label the excess water as an “enhancement”. Apparently Wal-Mart thought that was too good an opportunity to pass up. Not only could they now sell water for the price of rib-eyes, but when applied to lower grades of beef, the added water might actually be an improvement.
WHERE’S THE BEEF? Buy only high-end Choice beef, preferably branded. Ask your butcher if it is a “water enhanced” product, if it is not labeled.
WHAT ABOUT PORK AND CHICKEN? All the raw pork and chicken at Wal-Mart are from Tyson Foods, and all have water added.
WHAT ABOUT LAMB AND VEAL? So far these have fallen under the radar and are not worth adulterating. My freezer is filled with two nice lambs that I purchased from a colleague whose family raises and shows sheep. Being mid-westerners, they don’t eat lamb themselves, but send it off to market.
WHAT’S HOT AND WHAT’S NOT ABOUT BEEF
IN THE SUPERMARKET
Gary C. Smith
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523-1171