Paying more for less meat

"A reasonable person wouldn't use that liquid for any edible part of their meal," Santa Cruz County weights and measures investigator Marty Ryhanych said.

Up until now, shoppers have never had to pay for that goop in the tray, but beginning tomorrow, all that changes.

The United States Department of Agriculture passed a new rule saying that liquid is now considered part of the meat. That means companies can start charging consumers for it – at the same price per pound as the meat and chicken that sit in it.

California weights and measures around the state are calling foul.

"We're concerned there won't be any oversight as to how much liquid is in these packages," Ryhanych said.

Ryhanych tested some packages for ABC7 to show examples of liquid consumers will be paying for.

"In the case of some packages we opened up there was a third of a pound of liquid in there," Ryhanych said. "So at $5 a pound, you could expect to pay about $1.50."

Multiply that by the billions of pounds Americans consume and it adds up quickly.

A survey by the state Department of Food and Agriculture found paying for the liquid will cost Californians an extra $246 million per year at a time when grocery prices are already skyrocketing.

"This is an enormous handout to agribusiness to the tune of $246 million a year," Consumer Action's Joe Ridout said. "This is an enormous amount of money and it's really disgraceful that the USDA is forcing California to essentially to start counting water as meat."

But the California Poultry Federation, which lobbies for the industry believes the rule is fair because fresh meat packers are competing with processed meat packers who already and marinades and brine to their packages and charge meat prices for them.

"Well it's very fair and we're very excited about this new standard because it levels the playing field and makes labeling more consistent for consumers, who we think will like this new dry tare method," president of the California Poultry Federation Bill Mattos said.

Poultry is affected the most because chickens get a water bath during processing.

Until now, California was the only state that had a rule against making consumers pay for the fluid, but last year state agricultural secretary AG Kawamura quietly urged the USDA to make it a federal rule for all states to count the liquid as meat, including California.

Kawamura declined to be interviewed by ABC7, but released a statement saying the department wants "uniform measurement practices nationwide."

That idea does not sit well with members of the weights and measures community.

"We in California believe that when a consumer purchases a package of meat, they're purchasing the meat in that package and not any free flowing fluids that are within that package," Santa Cruz Agricultural Commissioner Ken Corbishley said.

Corbishley is worried that now, nobody is guarding the hen house.

"The consumer has no way of knowing, until they cut into the package and see how much liquid is in there," he said. "That shouldn't be the consumer's responsibility."

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