American consumers could save $3 billion per year, thanks to U.S. cattlemen.

In early September, USDA published for public comment a new rule prohibiting meat and poultry processors from adding water to their products unless it is necessary to meet food safety requirements. Any extra water weight would have to appear on package labels.

In the past, chickens were allowed to gain as much as 8% in water weight in processing (turkeys 9%) without disclosure. Beef, pork and lamb were allowed no water weight gain.

The proposed rule is the result of a lawsuit brought by a group of cattlemen and consumers over inequities in federal meat inspection. The suit, led by Wythe Willey, an attorney and cattleman from Cedar Rapids, IA, registered a huge victory in July when the 8th Circuit Court sided with them, saying the poultry water standard was not based on science.

A Federal District Court judge then directed the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to issue new regulations on added water for poultry. The new rule is in response to that court decision.

By the time of the July decision, the lawsuit had grown to include individuals from 28 states and support from the national trade organizations for cattle, pork and sheep.

Cattlemen Need to Get Involved With publication of the proposed rule, the next few months will bring an intense public relations battle as poultry industry interests fight to save or salvage their traditional federal inspections advantage, Willey says.

"This is, unfortunately, a very political issue. We really had to drag them kicking and screaming this far. It will now be a big public relations battle to enact this zero percentage water in chicken. The other side is really going to battle to keep it."

Willey urges cattlemen to become a visible voice during the comment period. Comments must be received on or before Dec. 10, 1998. Submit one original and two copies of the written comments (labeled as docket number 97-054P) to: Docket Clerk

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Food Safety and Inspection Service

Room 102, 300 12th Street, SW

Washington, DC 20250-3700.

"I hope cattlemen send millions of letters. This is an issue we're definitely on the right side of," Willey says. "There is no argument that you can scientifically apply that water belongs in one and not the other. And that's what the U.S. District Judge ruled last July - that the poultry regulations on added water were based on 'arbitrary and capricious' standards."