Without a precise FDA definition, “natural” can be practically anything a food producer says it is. Is high fructose corn syrup “natural?” Candy makers think so. The FDA says it isn’t sure whether “natural” is an issue for consumers. Oh. Is it?
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The Department of Agriculture, apparently concerned about consumer confusion over what “natural” meat might be, is proposing to define the term. Right now, “natural” means minimally processed plus whatever the marketer says it means, and nobody is checking (I devote a chapter of What to Eat to explaining all this). This proposal, as the USDA explains, would be a voluntary marketing claim (“no antibiotics, no hormones”). The proposal is open for comment until January 28. Want to comment? Do that at this site.
Another question today: “I BUY FARM RAISED SALMON FROM SUPERMARKET IT IS FROM ASIA. DOESN’T SAY COLOR ADDED. I SEE ATLANTIC FISH SO CALLED, NATURAL COLOR ADDED. WHY WOULD THEY SAY THAT IF IT IS NATURAL?? DO YOU HAVE AN ANSWER FOR THAT ONE.. THANKS.
LOVE YOUR ARTICLES. AL.”
Weird, no? I discuss this problem in the Fish Quandaries chapter of What to Eat in the section called Label Quandary #3: Artificial Color. The bottom line: all farmed salmon is colored pink because otherwise it would be an unappetizing gray and nobody would buy it. The color, which is fed to fish in the food pellets, usually is a synthetic version of the natural pigment (which originates from krill) but is sometimes isolated from yeast. Is either “natural?” This could be argued either way but the real point is that the FDA has not produced a regulatory definition for “Natural.” It should, if for no other reason than to end the confusion. Food companies want everything to appear “natural” because they know it sells. The fish section is the wild west of the supermarket. Caveat emptor!
In a full-page ad in today’s New York Times, Tyson Foods announces that all of its Tyson brand fresh chicken will be raised without antibiotics and marketed as “100% All Natural Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics–No Hormones Administered and No Artificial Ingredients.”
Tyson deserves applause for taking an important step toward greater food safety. Use of antibiotics as growth promoters increases chicken growth rates by about 10%, but non-therapeutic use of antibiotics increases antibiotic resistance in chicken bacteria. Resistant bacteria can spread to poultry workers, their families, and beyond, meaning that if the bacteria make people sick, the antibiotics will be useless as treatment. Tyson is a huge company that sells more than $26 billion worth of beef, chicken, and pork annually. If it eliminates non-therapeutic antibiotics, other companies may be encouraged to do the same.
The ad implies that only Tyson brand chicken is eliminating antibiotics and that its traditional chicken–undoubtedly the vast majority of what it produces–will continue to be treated with these drugs. If so, Tyson is positioning this particular chicken as a premium brand quite likely to be sold at a premium price. Watch for this at your grocery store.
As for No Hormones Administered: A footnote in tiny print at the bottom of the illustrated package label says “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in chicken.” Chickens are never treated with hormones anyway.
Finally, “100% All Natural” simply means that the chicken has no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. It does NOT mean that the chicken is Certified Organic or that the chickens are raised under uncrowded conditions, an issue I discuss in the What to Eat chapter titled “Meat: Organic versus “Natural.”
Take a look at the ad and tell me what you think.