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John Morrell Cooked Ham: Where’s the Beef?

john morrell ham small

Remember Clara Peller?  Some two decades ago, this cranky senior citizen was featured in television commercials for Wendy’s where she criticized competitors’ skimpy hamburgers by shouting “Where’s the beef?” [see commercial]

Well, we may have to contact John Edward (the psychic medium who speaks to the dead) to summon Ms. Peller and have her rephrase the question to “Where’s the ham?”

This package of John Morrell Cooked Ham above was quite a bargain — only $2.50 for a pound. It looks very lean. It says it is 96% fat free. What could be bad?

Under “Cooked Ham” there are more words that finish the actual name of the product: “and Water Product.”  And below that is yet a further explanation:

*MOUSE PRINT: “35% of Weight is Added Ingredients”

What’s added? According to the ingredients statement, it also contains water, dextrose, salt, and five types of sodium. But could over one-third of this product really be water and additives?  MrConsumer asked John Morrell for an explanation, and got this response:

The ham and water product is 35% added ingredients of ground ham shank and ham. This is not 35% of added “other ingredients” or “water and chemicals”.

Huh? What happened to the water listed right there on the label…twice?  So MrConsumer asked how much water was in the product. The response: “Cured in a solution of 79% water.”

We are not making progress. So MrConsumer asked again, “In my package there is 16 oz (1 pound) of ham product. What percentage of the contents of that package is water?”  Their response:

You have 1# of meat as the pkg states. When the ham is processed and cured it will weigh more then 1#. It is allowed to “drain” until the ideal weight of 1# is reached. So the meat is 1# but the solution is drained to get to that weight. Does that make since now?

No, it still doesn’t make sense, so MrConsumer thought he should consult the Department of Agriculture which probably had a standard of identity for “Cooked Ham and Water Product.” (A standard of identity sets out a legal definition of what has to be in a food product to use a particular product description.)

As it turns out, cooked ham can be sold under four different names: “cooked ham”, “cooked ham with natural juices”, “cooked ham, water added”, and “cooked ham and water product — x% of weight is added ingredients.”  As you go down the list of names, less and less real meat protein (“minimum meat PFF percentage”) has to be in the product. For cooked ham and water product, the minimum meat PFF is less than 17%. [See: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/9CF319.html ]

The technical definition of PFF is quite complex, so MrConsumer asked the Department of Agriculture to put it in plain English and indicate whether the “less than 17%” rule meant the product could really have less than 17% ham. The answer from the USDA (received seven weeks after asking):

The protein fat free percentage (PFF) is the meat protein content indigenous to the raw, unprocessed pork cut expressed as a percent of the non-fat portion of the finished product. The number “17” refers to the percent meat protein (determined by Laboratory analysis) that is present in the non-fat portion of the finished product. This number does not denote the amount of real ham in a product.

Got it?  MrConsumer still doesn’t and he gives up.

So let’s toast Clara Peller with some ham flavored water at being much better at getting answers to “where’s the beef” than MrConsumer is about finding out “where’s the ham.” 

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21 thoughts on “John Morrell Cooked Ham: Where’s the Beef?”

  1. The moral of the story: don’t buy “meat” or “cheese” where the name of the product ends in “product”. (Or “spread”, unless you were actually planning to use it as a spread.)

  2. Laws differ from country to country, but “supermarket ham” in Western nations can be expected to be very “wet”. If you put a ham in a dessicating chamber until it’s bone dry then it will of course have lost a great deal of its weight, but the difference in added water content between a proper premium butcher-not-ashamed-to-sell-it ham and a cheap water-injected one can be an easy 25%.

    Which is to say, one kilogram of supermarket ham would, if the meat had been prepared the more expensive way, weigh only 750 grams, or less.

    More on this from the UK:

    Compulsory perhaps-I’ll-eat-beef-from-now-on link:

  3. The problem here is that putting a ham in the dessicator is of course not fair either. And that’s the hard-to-legislate ‘loophole’ that manufacurers use. They added water to keep the product fresh, and then they added a bit more. And more. And more. Because the consumer doesn’t know what he’s buying, and apparently can’t find out. Thanks USDA!

  4. What a horrible customer service representative that could not take the time to properly and adequately respond to a customer’s question – and with terrible grammar and spelling on top of that!

    Doesn’t make me feel real confident in their “product”.

  5. So if I buy this 1 pound ham, and get 83% water, I guess that means that it’s like the drink listed elsewhere that helps me lose weight by eating it, right? After all, if I get full by eating 6 pounds of food per day, then I am really only getting 1 pound of food and 5 pounds of water (which gives me my daily supply of water and maybe fewer and fewer calories–probably close to that 2000 that the govt thinks we should be eating to maintain a healthy diet.

    Meanwhile, this reminds me of a recent juice container I saw that indicated that it contained 100% juice (with a big 100% on the label.) I decided to look at the ingredients and noticed water there…and wondered how it could be 100% juice if it had water listed in the ingredients. I checked an adjacent product (different brand) whcih also had 100% juice on the label and water was not listed. I eventually concluded that if it “contains” 100% juice then they must have taken pure juice and mixed it with water, whereas if it “is” 100% juice then it’s not mixed with water.

    (How about it, MrConsumer? Can you investigate juice containers and report back to us?)

    Anyway, I think they need to keep the water content no more than the water content in a “live ham” walking around the farm, for the same cut of meat.


    EDGAR RESPONDS: As to the 100% juice with water, my guess is that it is made from concentrate and when reconstituted it is identical to the original and thus may be able to be called 100% juice. With respect to the ham… it is NOT 83% water. It really is mostly ham, but not as solid as other hams.

  6. Whew! This is a clear as mud! Bottom line, I won’t be buying Mr Morrell’s processed bags of water with a bit of ham added. I prefer my water to be completely meat-free, thank you.

  7. Thank you for your efforts! I don’t blame you for giving up. I’ll be more observant next time I buy a similar package of sandwich meat.

  8. Ad exec’s having been trying to stick it to us for years. I hate buying a product for years and then it slowly shrinks down, more space in the can, yet the price goes up. Wet dog food used to be so solid it was hard to get it out of the can. Now they’re so “watered down” when I drain the liquid the contents has shrunk a good inch or more from the top of the can. And what ad jerk thought of the idea to sell a popular brand of paper towels by reducing the size of the single towel by saying you’re not getting less but more because it “soaks up more than the bigger size towel”! Still costs the same tho. And if we buy into that then we really are stupid.

  9. The very fact that all parties involved are completely uncooperative and in fact seem determined NOT to tell you what is in the product should be more than just a warning sign. This is a red flag planted firmly in a pile of rancid meat.
    Further proof that the USDA and all like departments are figureheads designed to dismiss fears and questions regarding our food sources. It doesn’t matter if the food is irradiated or genetically modified or altered to the point of not even being recognizable any more. Just shut up and buy it because the corporate congloms that manufacture it are telling you to. Sure it’s good for you. Sure it’s fine. Just don’t ask if they eat it themselves.

  10. I thought I read labels well until this watered ham business. I did not realize there were so many classes of packaging for ham products. Its easy to get lazy about reading labels even for someone obsessed like myself. This will surely sharpen my game! Why isn’t food packaging and food labeling under stricter rules when it comes to what America puts in its stomach? If Americans were forced to know what was in their store bought food, they would rise up in protest. Transfats (are they really gone?), food coloring, preservatives, etc…are not our friend.
    I’m not sure about water but not happy when there is more water than product…except when I’m buying water. I’ll be keeping my eye on this
    and a lot keener eye on my product labels.

  11. Re: “I hate buying a product for years and then it slowly shrinks down, more space in the can, yet the price goes up” (Linda Webb)

    I don’t think it was very long ago that a box of “facial tissues” cost about 50 cents for a box of 250. Then it dropped to 50 cents for 225, then for 200 then for 180. Then they started offering the 250-tissue box for $1.

    The latest is that the 250-tissue box costs about $3 and the 120-tissue box (yup, got smaller again!) costs about $1.25

    They try to promote it as “won’t irritate your nose when you have a cold” or “extra fluffly” or whatever.

    And they’ve been doing this on candy bars for years.

  12. If its a food product, they should be required to name it by the ingredient of most content. For example, a 17% or less Ham and water product was actually be labeled “Water”. If they wish to list the remainder of the ingredients in fine print somewhere, so be it. When I go to the store, I won’t be looking for water slices to put on bread and all will be fair. Can we get a law here people?! Let’s go. hut hut hut.

  13. I think that the problem is that ham naturally contains water (and a variable amount at that). If you take a piece of pork (that’s maybe 40% water to begin with) and cure it, you remove water in the process. Should you be able to add water back in to a) bring up all your product to a consistent water content and b) replace water that was extracted in the curing process. I would say that yes for a) because consumers expect consistent product, but no for b) because it’s the nature of ham to contain less moisture than raw pork. If you need to package water or other ingredients with the ham to preserve the quality, it shouldn’t be included in the weight on the label – the plastic package isn’t either.

  14. This is one reason I just don’t buy this kind of packaged stuff. Most of us simply can’t figure out what it is we’re actually buying if we do.

    Buy a real piece of meat and just slice it yourself.

    (Real meat too expensive? Budgeting for cable TV? Personally if I had to choose I’d choose to spend on food rather than TV or other entertainments.)

  15. I’m a little late on this topic.

    What is basically going on with ham and water product based on the USDA definition is this:

    5% is fat
    95% is ham/water. the usda says 17% has to be ham “protein”.
    so 17% of 95% (16.15% of the total package) is actually ham protein. not water, additives, or fat.

    so any “ham and water product” will be less than 17% ham.

    this particular package is 35% ground ham and ham shank. so they grind the whole thing up, bone
    and all and put it in the package. this is still probably around only 20% ham, leaving it
    with 15% ground bone. eww.

  16. In July 2007 I became upset after noticing the amount of water contained in the John Morrell center cut ham steaks packeged in vacuum sealed plastic wrapping. I had purchased two of the ham steaks so with the second one I used some Bounty paper towels, weighed them and then pressed as much water as I could out of the ham into the paper towels and weighed them again. The weight of the water absorbed by the paper towels = 27% of the stated weight of the ham steak. You encounter the same situation when you buy whole chickens from Claxton or Tyson. It’s probably the same with other poultry packing houses. Claxton Poultry is about twenty five miles from here so I called the plant and a supervisor told me that they are allowed to put the water in there. The water content of the Claxton chicken was 23%, counting the weight of the sanitary napkin looking thing in the package with the chicken. The weight of the chicken was not stated on the Claxton package but on the Harvey’s grocery store meat market weight/price per lb./price lable. I believe the reason this goes on is because so many people are apathetic to the situation, just as they are about politics. The only way I know to beat unscrupulous market place practices is to grow your own.

  17. Lesson in all of this: EAT WHOLE FOOD! Stop eating processed garbage that you can’t pronounce or identify! Buy a fresh, whole ham and bake it yourself! Food shouldn’t be that complicated.

  18. The amount of ham does not necessarily equal the amount of meat protein. An entire ham, straight off the pig, after all, is not 100% meat protein since 90% of the body is water. So we know that 17% of this product consist of protein, and then the rest consists of the other components of the ham and their additives.

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