Grown in Washington? Foster Farms' decision to change chicken labeling ruffles growers
Seattle Times staff reporter
How consumers will react is unclear from surveys that have been done, but critics within the Washington industry are crying fowl. They say the change will make it harder for shoppers to know the source of the chicken they buy — no small issue in a state where the "Grown in Washington" slogan has promoted local poultry for decades.
California-based Foster Farms has announced that May 6 it will begin labeling all chicken grown in Oregon or Washington as "Locally grown in Washington or Oregon."
Until now, the Foster Farms labels, like those of other processors, have identified chicken from these states as grown specifically in Washington or in Oregon.
Foster Farms has a plant in Kelso where chickens from both states are slaughtered and processed. The company says the label change will trim production costs, ultimately helping Northwest chicken growers compete against imports of cheaper Southern-grown poultry.
A Washington state regulation in effect since 1957 says chicken sold here must be labeled as to state of origin, which it defines as "the state where the bird was raised to market weight."
Chicken grower Roger Reaves of Tenino is so steamed about Foster Farms' label change he has decided to make a major business switch: Though he has raised chickens — 600,000 of them a year — for Foster Farms since he started his operation six years ago, from now on he plans to sell his birds to Draper Valley Farms of Mount Vernon, and has signed a contract to do so.
He said he knows of at least two other Washington growers who have flown the Foster coop for the same reason.
"It is not a good thing," Reaves said of the label change. "We established the 'Washington grown' label many, many years ago to strengthen the local economy of Washington and promote Washington-grown chicken."
The new Foster label will work against that by lumping Washington and Oregon birds together, said Reaves, a member of the Washington Fryer Commission.
The commission has spent $5.2 million over the past decade crowing about Washington-grown poultry in ads and commercials, said its director of marketing Sue Broderick. By agreement with chicken growers, chicken processors generally pay the fee that growers are assessed.
For its part, Foster Farms also has had plenty of presence on the airwaves, its "Foster Imposter" TV commercials featuring a pair of bumbling, junk-food-scarfing cartoon chickens who never make the grade as Foster birds.
The Washington Fryer Commission has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on the Foster Farms new label plan and is awaiting an answer. Depending on the AG's advice, legal action against Foster is a possibility, said Broderick.
Foster Farms said it is consolidating the Oregon/Washington labels partly to trim processing costs in a highly competitive industry. Vice President Dave Schanzer said the change also will make it easier to meet market demand in areas where distributors deliver chicken to both Oregon and Washington stores.
Broderick, of the Washington Fryer Commission, acknowledged that Southern-grown chicken is often cheaper than Northwest poultry, partly because of its closer access to major feed-grain growing regions.
She also said Southern-grown chicken often is not labeled by state of origin, but that stores frequently post signs saying "Southern grown."
Schanzer said the cost-cutting label change would help growers in both Washington and Oregon compete against the Southern imports. He maintained that Foster has particularly strict quality-control measures that raise production costs.
The company said many of its Washington growers recognize the competitive value of trimming costs.
Draper Valley Farms CEO Rick Koplowitz said his company has no plans to make a similar label change. He said Draper Valley — the largest Washington-based poultry company — processes some chickens from Oregon, but far more from Washington and that it sells the Oregon-grown birds in Oregon.
Chicken grown for meat is a $300 million industry in Washington, said Broderick.
Whether the label issue will create a flap among consumers is hard to say from the results of two separate surveys on the question.
Foster Farms says a study done by an independent research company found that 95 percent of the 400-plus Washington and Oregon consumers questioned said separate labels specific to each of these states were not important as long as the products were grown in the Northwest, were fresh and were "reasonably priced."
But Broderick said a survey of 500 consumers done for the Washington Fryer Commission produced different results.
"Our research says that eight out of 10 Washington people who purchase chicken choose grown-in-Washington chicken, even if it costs more," she said.
Although perceived differences in freshness might be an issue with some consumers, this would not necessarily be a factor in reality as regards Foster Farms' consolidated Washington/Oregon label. Birds from both states are processed at the Kelso plant, making the time from slaughter to store the same regardless of where it was grown, noted those in the industry.
A greater issue for some consumers might be supporting local growers, as Reaves and others advocate.
Broderick said the label issue likely will come up when the Washington Fryer Commission — whose members include representatives of both Foster Farms and Draper Valley, as well as growers and others — next meets at 10 a.m. on May 11 at the Silver Cloud restaurant in Renton.
Information in this article, originally published April 21, was corrected April 23. By agreement with chicken growers, chicken processors in Washington generally pay the fee that growers are assessed by the Washington Fryer Commission to promote Washington-grown chicken. A previous version of this article on state-of-origin chicken labeling said the money comes from growers.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company