Fowl Play by the USDA

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BART and Pat Ehman of Sebastopol, Calif., strive to produce a tastier chicken by giving the birds an all-grain diet and freedom to roam around a chicken yard. They call them ``range chickens.'' The US Department of Agriculture, however, can't swallow that. Four years into successful marketing of ``Rocky the Range Chicken'' - production having grown from 300 birds a week to over 20,000 - the Ehmans' company got a call from the USDA. The department was put out. The word ``range'' didn't compute - it didn't fit any of the existing definitions of what a chicken is or should be. Presumably, the chicken-eating public was perplexed.

Beyond that, said the government, you can't call a chicken ``stress-free,'' since no one can talk to the fowl and determine its state of mind. And furthermore, you can't call them ``vegetarian,'' because Webster's definition of the term applies only to people.

Rocky's keepers tried a compromise. They'd drop ``range,'' as USDA demanded, and spell out what it was supposed to connote: a chicken raised on corn and soy bean meal without any antibiotics, growth enhancers, or other additives, and allowed to go outside.

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Just one minute, said the USDA. ``Allowed to go outside'' was a ``new concept'' in chicken-marketing parlance. The department wanted no part of that.

So the Ehmans are constrained to leave all mention of Rocky's footloose ways off its packaging and stick to the basics - at least so far as the meat counter is concerned. But, says Mr. Ehman, they can still put posters in other parts of the store explaining why ``Rocky the Range Chicken'' is now simply ``Rocky the Chicken.''

This could all seem, well, a little bird-brained. But one has to admire the USDA's zeal in protecting the public from labeling that could mislead, perplex, or even harm. In many instances, doubtless, the department's scrutiny has served us well. It's just hard to see how Rocky could have been one of them.

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