Of all the meaningless terms in the food labeling world—and there are a lot—”natural” might be one of the worst.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) recently sued Hormel, the company behind brands like Applegate and Dinty Moore, for misleading customers with its “natural” label. The suit was thrown out, but not before, as Bloomberg finds, Hormel was forced to give over documents explaining exactly what’s in its “natural” meats—and even emails from employees concerned about the label.
The USDA is responsible for regulating labeling for meat and poultry, and has struggled in the face of rapidly changing marketing strategies to properly decide what each word means. Many terms that seem to signal something about the way the animal was raised—”farm fresh,” for example—literally have no definition at all. Anyone can just say that.
“Natural” is not completely unregulated, but it’s close. The USDA’s official definition is this:
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
The Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which heard the case, found that Hormel had not violated the law with its products. Hormel’s Natural Choice brand does technically follow the law: it states what it means by natural (“no artificial preservatives,” for example). But as part of the hearing, Hormel had to give a massive dump of data, including communication amongst employees, and it gives more insight into what’s really in the Natural Choice meats.
Hormel does not have separate facilities for hogs due for Natural Choice products; in other words, the same hogs, raised in the same way, are used for both Natural Choice Cherrywood-Smoked Uncured Bacon and, well, Spam. That means that those “natural” hogs are given antibiotics, and the meat is spiked with nitrate-heavy preservatives—it’s just that those nitrate-heavy preservatives come from celery juice rather than a lab-crafted powder. For those who assume that “natural” might mean antibiotic-free or nitrate-free? Nope. In fact, some studies have found that nitrate levels are actually higher in “natural” products than not.
Technically, this isn’t illegal, because Hormel does indeed state what’s in their products. The company said in a statement that, “Hormel Natural Choice products are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or chemical preservatives, and that’s clearly stated on the package.” This is true! But it’s deliberately following the letter of the law rather than the spirit; customers have a much higher expectation of a meat labeled “natural,” as multiple studies have shown.
The FDA, which regulates non-meat, egg, and poultry labeling, has already declared that it’s aware that the “natural” label is potentially misleading, and called for public comment back in 2015 to hopefully find some solution to the problem. As it stands, Hormel is innocent—but just barely.