‘Nat­u­ral’ meat la­bel mostly moot

Public as­sump­tions may not match what it ac­tu­ally is

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - People On The Move - By Deena Shanker and Ly­dia Mul­vany Bloomberg News

Con­sumers want “nat­u­ral” meat — and the big­gest meat com­pa­nies want to sell it to them.

Amer­i­can shop­pers are reach­ing for health­ier, more en­vi­ron­men­tally and an­i­mal-friendly meat prod­ucts, with 39 per­cent say­ing “all­nat­u­ral” is the most im­por­tant claim when pur­chas­ing red meat, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey by Min­tel. But there’s one prob­lem: The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture says that when it comes to meat and poul­try, the term “nat­u­ral” means only that the prod­uct has no ar­ti­fi­cial in­gre­di­ents and has been min­i­mally pro­cessed.

It doesn’t mean any­thing when it comes to an­tibi­otics, hor­mones or preser­va­tives.

Com­pa­nies such as Tyson Foods, Pil­grim’s Pride and Hormel have been snap­ping up smaller, out­wardly pro­gres­sive com­peti­tors in the bur­geon­ing or­ganic food space, seek­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on chang­ing con­sumer tastes. At the same time, how­ever, some of the ma­jor meat com­pa­nies have been of­fer­ing their own prod­ucts as “nat­u­ral,” re­plete with la­bels fea­tur­ing blue skies and green fields.

On April 8, the Su­pe­rior Court of the Dis­trict of Columbia dis­missed a law­suit by the An­i­mal Le­gal De­fense Fund al­leg­ing Hormel was mis­lead­ing con­sumers.

The court held that as long as man­u­fac­turer la­bels are ap­proved by the USDA, the advertising can use the “nat­u­ral” claims. “[I]f a pro­ducer can ac­cu­rately use a term in a la­bel,” the court wrote, “the pro­ducer should be able to use the

same term in its advertising.”

Hormel said in its most re­cent quar­terly fil­ing that its “Nat­u­ral Choice” line of meats “showed ex­cel­lent growth.” But in a 600-plus­page court fil­ing in Jan­uary, in which Hormel re­sponded to the ALDF law­suit, the com­pany dis­closed how it makes some of its Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts, as well as its per­cep­tion of what con­sumers think they’re buy­ing.

In state­ments dis­closed in the fil­ing, a com­pany ex­ec­u­tive said the same pigs it uses to make its fa­mous Spam brand meat prod­uct are also used in Nat­u­ral Choice pork prod­ucts. Those pigs are of­ten given an­tibi­otics and are rarely al­lowed out­doors.

“It’s a mas­sive at­tempt to ma­nip­u­late and dupe the con­sumer to pur­chase some­thing they have no

in­ten­tion to pur­chase,” said David Muraskin, a food project at­tor­ney at Public Jus­tice and lead lawyer for ALDF. The group said it plans to ap­peal the April 8 rul­ing.

“Our po­si­tion has al­ways been that Hormel Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts are pro­duced, la­beled, and mar­keted in con­for­mance with all ap­pli­ca­ble laws and reg­u­la­tions,” Hormel said in a state­ment. “The USDA’s Food Safety and In­spec­tion Ser­vice has specif­i­cally re­viewed and ap­proved the la­bels for Hormel Nat­u­ral Choice branded prod­ucts, in­clud­ing scru­ti­niz­ing and ap­prov­ing the ‘Nat­u­ral’ and ‘Preser­va­tive’-re­lated lan­guage.”

Hormel’s mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor said many con­sumers as­sume nat­u­ral means no an­tibi­otics.

In­ter­nally, Hormel em­ploy­ees ques­tioned

whether they were meet­ing con­sumer ex­pec­ta­tions, specif­i­cally around an­tibi­otics, ac­cord­ing to the court fil­ing. The com­pany’s di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing said in an email quoted in the doc­u­ment that “many con­sumer[s] as­sume Nat­u­ral=RWOA (Raised With­out An­tibi­otics).” Hormel stated in the fil­ing that she was “sim­ply mak­ing an ob­ser­va­tion.”

Con­sumer com­ments cited in the court fil­ing of­ten fo­cused on the “no preser­va­tives” claims, with one stat­ing, for ex­am­ple, “We love your (Nat­u­ral Choice) meats, my hus­band is al­ler­gic to ni­trates, so thank­ful for your prod­ucts …” Hormel stated that, at most, “the com­menter pur­chased Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts be­cause of the taste and be­cause the com­menter’s hus­band had no al­ler­gic re­ac­tion.”

Some of the nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents

used as preser­va­tives in Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts are high in ni­trates.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween what’s le­gal and what’s eth­i­cal,” Niko­las Con­tis, a se­nior part­ner at brand con­sul­tant PS212, said of the Nat­u­ral Choice mar­ket­ing. “I think it’s un­eth­i­cal. They know the words are mis­lead­ing.” Hormel on Wed­nes­day re­jected Con­tis’ as­ser­tion, say­ing it dis­agrees with “any im­pli­ca­tion that the advertising or la­bel­ing for the Hormel Nat­u­ral Choice brand is mis­lead­ing.”

Most an­i­mals raised for meat in the U.S. spend their lives in con­ven­tional in­door agri­cul­tural sys­tems, rou­tinely re­ceiv­ing an­tibi­otics and some­times growth pro­mot­ers. While this isn’t what most con­sumers likely en­vi­sion as “nat­u­ral,” it’s a sys­tem that al­lows them to eat as much beef, pork, turkey and chicken as they want — no mat­ter where they live or the time of year.

Ac­cord­ing to the court fil­ing, Hormel ex­ec­u­tives said that these prac­tices are de­ployed at the in­de­pen­dent farms rais­ing their an­i­mals, and that there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween those raised for Spam and those des­tined for Nat­u­ral Choice. (Hormel’s Ap­ple­gate brand, a small or­ganic la­bel it pur­chased in 2015, was not at is­sue in the law­suit.)

There is “no sep­a­rate man­ner in which the pigs raised for Hormel Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts are ver­sus any other of Hormel’s prod­ucts, so Spam or any lunch­meat or ba­con prod­uct,” Cor­wyn Bol­lum, Hormel’s di­rec­tor of pork pro­cure­ment, said in a de­po­si­tion cited in the court fil­ing. That means only a “fairly small per­cent” of the pigs slaugh­tered for Nat­u­ral Choice had any out­door ac­cess, he said. Some pigs used in Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts re­ceived an­tibi­otics and/or the growth pro­moter, rac­topamine, ac­cord­ing to other state­ments cited in the fil­ing.

And it’s not just the pigs: “Hormel Foods ac­knowl­edges that some cattle that (sic) used in Nat­u­ral Choice beef prod­ucts re­ceive hor­mones,” the com­pany wrote in the fil­ing.

It also stated that tur­keys used in Nat­u­ral Choice prod­ucts may re­ceive an­tibi­otics.

An­tibi­otics are rou­tinely ad­min­is­tered to live­stock to pre­vent dis­ease, though the prac­tice has been linked to a grow­ing public-health cri­sis of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance in hu­mans. Pro­duc­ers are sup­posed to al­low enough time be­tween the ad­min­is­tra­tion of an­tibi­otics and the slaugh­ter of the an­i­mal, such that the drugs have been flushed from its sys­tem, said Colin John­son, a swine spe­cial­ist with the Iowa Pork In­dus­try Cen­ter in Ames, Iowa.

DANIEL ACKER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Hormel stated in court fil­ings that the same pigs used to make Spam of­ten end up as the source for other prod­ucts.

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