Do you know this word:  plumping?  You should learn about it because it is costing you money and health.   It’s a technical word for a process used by meat processors to inject or “enhance” meat that is sold in packages.   Specifically, companies inject raw chicken, beef or pork meat with saltwater,  stock, seaweed extract or some combination thereof.   (Some meat processors actually add ammonia, according to the New York Times!)   As noted by Consumer Reports,  plumped chicken commonly contains 15% of its total weight in saltwater, but in some cases can contain as much as 30%.Since the price of chicken is based on weight, opponents of the practice estimate that shoppers could be paying up to an additional $1.70 per package for added saltwater, with the total annual cost to U.S. families estimated to be $2 billion in added weight charges.   That’s a $2 billion rip-off that, regrettably, may be legal.

Plumping is a food processor trick that is used all over the world, but has become a common practice in the U.S.   Unfortunately, it’s not illegal.  If the retailer discloses the solution injection on its label, then no law is broken.  So you might see wording to the effect of:  “Enhanced with up to 35% solution”.  This disclosure frees the processor or retailer from legal repercussions.  But there are clear repercussions for your pocketbook and your health.

Plumping, or injecting, as it is called in the industry, has been going on for some time. In the past five years, this industry process has become the standard. Fresh chicken, for example, is injected with a solution of saltwater so it stays juicier and more flavorful (so they say). The solution contains a long list of ingredients that can account for up to 30% of the chicken’s weight. The use of brine injection is probably the result of the larger transformation of meat production over the past 30 to 40 years. Meat without character or taste comes from livestock developed for rapid growth rather than flavor, fed grain instead of grass, given growth hormones, cooped up indoors, harvested young, and sold without traditional aging. Concerns about bacterial contamination — again exacerbated by industrial production methods — have led the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to advise thoroughly cooking meats, making it more likely that consumers will overcook their steaks and chops, hence the need for added “moistness.” And today’s pressed-for-time home cooks are less likely to employ the slow-cooking techniques that work best with less-expensive cuts.

Plumped meats may appear less expensive than regular meats, but their value is diluted — literally. Instead of buying pure meat, you’re buying meat diluted with “a solution. Perhaps the worst part about plumping, though, is the fact that meat producers can still label their meat as being “100 percent natural,” since this terminology is not properly regulated, and does not have a standardize legal definition. As long as the injected substances are considered to be “natural” themselves — “natural” technically cannot be legally defined in this context, either — then anything goes as far as meat production is concerned.

One enterprising blogger noticed that Kroger’s Simple Truth brand of meat included a “solution” and sought to bring this practice to light in a letter written to Kroger grocery store. Kroger’s response was revealing:

“Thank you for contacting Kroger Customer Connect. My name is Lovena and I appreciate you taking the time to share your comments regarding the solution that is injected to our pork and chicken. Our customers have told us (through taste panels) that they prefer the taste of chicken with the salt solution. We add the solution to enhance the cooking experience for most customers. Even if the chicken is overcooked, for example, it is less likely to dry out. We understand some customers prefer chicken that is free from a salt solution, and for those customers we offer our Simple Truth chicken products.”

Not only are consumers overpaying for their meat, but they may be unwittingly sacrificing their health.   A 4 oz. serving of plain, non-enhanced chicken might have 45 to 70 mg of sodium.  But the ‘injected’ version of the same chicken will contain up to 440 mg – about 20% of the recommended daily limit for sodium intake.  In short, the meat producers are injecting salt into both the meat and YOU.

As disturbingly, food processors can substitute expensive meat products with cheaper cuts of meat.  We found a scientific paper that described the use of brine injection to make cheap beef such as chuck, brisket and eye of round appear to be “roast beef”.  The 2001 article in Meat Science details how injection made the cheaper meats more tender, thus allowing them to masquerade as a more expensive piece of beef.

As Consumer World noted recently, the economics are compelling for manufacturers:  three pound piece of beef brisket plumped up with 35% solution magically becomes about a four pound brisket. That’s how stores can sell raw corned beef in Cryovac packages for only $1.69 a pound around St. Patrick’s Day.   If you purchase a package of injected chicken for $6, you will likely be paying at least $1 to $1.50 for the salt water solution.

Our Solution to this Salt-Solution Conundrum:  Don’t buy any packaged meat that contains a “solution”, “brine”, “improved” or “injection” of any sort.  If you choose to brine your meat before cooking, then do it at home after your purchase.  You’ll pay a lot less than $10 for a pound of water and the meat will likely taste a whole lot better.