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posted: 9/28/2011 5:00 PM

Decoding poultry labels

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Ever wonder what a chicken package label that reads "No Retained Water" means? Been befuddled by trying to figure out the difference between "No Antibiotics Added" and "Raised Without Antibiotics"? Confused by a poultry label that reads: "All Natural -- Minimally Processed"?

Labels like those confuse me too, so I decided to do some research at the food labeling source the: US Department of Agriculture.

Let's look at "No Retained Water." Before they're packaged, most conventionally raised poultry heads to a "chill tank" (a large vat of cold, chlorinated moving water) to be quickly cooled down to a safe level. During this bath, chickens and turkeys usually absorb some of that water, mostly in the skin, and labels must indicate how much.

Air-chilling, a common method in Europe and Canada for 45 years has only been available here for about 10 years. During air-chilling, chickens are sprayed with chlorinated water inside and out before moving through a refrigerated air system. Companies that use this system claim the chicken tastes better. Air-chilled chickens frequently cost more and the label can state: "No Retained Water."

Here's a potentially confusing label: "No Growth Stimulants or Added Hormones." Growth stimulants may seem to refer to only hormones, but can refer to antibiotic use in beef and poultry feed. Use of those antibiotics appears to stimulate growth. According to the USDA, hormones are not allowed in poultry raising.

There are two label statements that really perplex me: "No Antibiotics Added" and "Raised Without Antibiotics." It would seem they mean the same thing. The USDA states that if a poultry producer documents that its chickens or turkeys are raised without antibiotics, the label can claim either one.

I'm always skeptical when any food product contains the word "natural" on the label since the definition of "natural" has yet to be definitive for all food products and is not carefully regulated.

The USDA does state that "natural" meat and poultry should be: "A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed." Minimal processing means processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. Yet there's no further USDA definition for "fundamentally altered," opening-up what seems like some legal wiggle-room.

If you're concerned over chlorinated water or antibiotics in your chicken head to the "organic" section where you'll find elevated price tags, but almost zero concern over term definitions.

Reason: antibiotics are no-nos for any meat or poultry labeled "certified organic," chill tanks for organic poultry cannot be chlorinated and there's no word dance about the word "natural."

Try this recipe: If you want a yummy side dish to serve with your next roast chicken, try my crisp cabbage slaw. I hate soggy cabbage slaw, and most slaws that sit in dressing for 24 hours come out of the fridge all watery. There's a way to get around that; here's how.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at