"Natural" Meat: Still as Unnatural as Ever

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Photo by rick/FlickrCC

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.