"Natural" Meat: Still as Unnatural as Ever

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Certain buzzwords catch on for a while in food industry marketing, many soon fading from use. Yesterday, it all seemed to be about lycopenes, today it's trans fats. The word "natural" has had more longevity, but does it have any real meaning when it appears on food labels?

We've been particularly troubled by the abuse of the word in meat marketing. A few years back, I (Nicolette) was strolling down a sidewalk in Manhattan and paused to read a poster in a supermarket window advertising "natural pork" for a mere $1.49 per pound. Upon closer examination, I realized it was just industrially produced pork. Yet the government allows factory-farmed pork to be sold as "natural" because it requires only that "natural" meat be "minimally processed." In other words, the conditions in which the animal is raised are deemed irrelevant. Amazingly, pigs raised in a crowded, windowless metal building with concrete floors and fed drug-laced feed can be (and are!) the source of pork labeled and sold as "natural."

Heavily criticized for this approach, the USDA finally undertook to define the term "naturally raised" a couple of years ago. We traveled to Denver to participate in the public hearings. We urged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture require that meat labeled "natural" must be raised naturally. (Our full comments are available online.)

Our point was that the conditions in which an animal is raised are central to the question of whether or not its meat is natural. A few weeks ago, the USDA released a draft of its new rules relating to meat labeling. The new rules require that meat called natural not be fed antibiotics or meat by-products. This is good but really just scratches the surface. Unfortunately, as previously, the rules are silent on the conditions in which animals are raised. We are not surprised, but we are nonetheless disappointed. This means the USDA will continue to allow factory-farmed meat to be labeled as "natural." Buyer beware.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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