by Marion Nestle
Sep 14 2009

USDA to define “natural”

I can hardly believe it but the USDA is about to define what “natural” means for meat and poultry products (on the link, look for Docket No. FSIS-2006-0040A).

At the moment, the USDA has two definitions of “natural.”  Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other additives.   But the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has its own ideas.  It says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals raised with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics, and no animal by-products.  Hmm.  How about all of the above?

Let’s hear applause for the new USDA administration for taking this on.  OK FDA: now it’s your turn!

  • KyFarmersMatter

    Just a sidenote correction, actually the USDA AMS definition you are referring to is “Naturally Raised” and not “Natural”. I know, its stupid but it’s a fact. Basically “Natural” is referring the the “meat” and the process it has undergone whereas “Naturally Raised” is referring to the livestock.

  • I have so many pet peeves it is borderline disingenuous of me to say that this is one of my bigger ones, but let’s just ignore that for the moment. What drives me wacky is the use of the term “natural” for ground beef (and other raw 100% beef products) to indicate the absence of “any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other additives.” The use of the term “natural” to indicate these facts is about as meaningful as adding a label that says “uncooked” to a package of raw ground beef. If something can’t be there in the first place, then why should a producer be able to make a positive claim about its absence? The fact of the matter is that most consumers reasonably assume that the term “natural” indicates that the ground beef is of a better or different quality somehow than ground beef not so labeled. If that is not true, then the label should not be allowed.

    Okay, stepping off soap box now.

  • KyFarmersMatter

    I agree with your peeves, but many meat products have been injected with a flavor enhancer or tenderizer, packaged via MAP or other method of preservation, and disturbingly enough have been injected with water.

    These are unfortunate realities of the meat biz. Allowing the natural label on meat products that did not use those methods and chose to only minimally process & market a genuine raw piece of meat seems appropriate with that in mind.

    For that reason alone, I like the Natural label allowance. Unfortunately, I do not like that consumers really do not understand the meaning of what that label actually means. Thus just defeating the purpose of the label altogether and further confusing the already confused consumer.

  • Oh, it’s about time! This has bugged me for years. There’s nothing worse than a label for “natural” chicken that says “no antibiotics*, no hormones*, minimally processed.” Then when you go to find what the asterisk refers to, you discover it’s not talking about how the chicken was RAISED, but how it was processed. (Um, who uses antibiotics when PROCESSING a chicken?) It’s a meaningless claim that’s very deceptive. They’re charging consumers a premium for something that’s essentially the same as the other grocery store meat.

  • @KYFarmersMatter Sounds reasonable, but why call it natural when the average population thinks it means free of any additivies whatsoever. Have to come up with a better, more accurate term.

  • My only concern for this is for those farmers and ranchers who raise their animals ethically and sustainably, but who still believe in consciencious application of antibiotics.

  • Anthro

    “Natural” is too vague a word to define as can even be seen by the comments here; it means something different to almost each reader. Why not just do away with it. Can the label just say, “Raised and processed without hormones or antibiotics. No added ingredients.”

    After all, a chicken is natural by definition whether or not it has been given drugs, or treated cruelly.

    Whatever they come up with, I hope they take on the rest of the food industry. I have this argument with the coop all the time. Their chicken says, “no hormones or antibiotics…..” but these are forbidden by law, so it seems a bit disingenuous. I take FoodRenegade’s point, but it’s not clear to me that the asterisk wording only refers to processing. I’ll read it again soon.

    There’s an easy way around all this: GO VEG(etarian)!

  • Andrew

    Has the USDA defined “pasture-raised” yet? Also, does data exist on the size of the pastured meat sector?

  • Melody

    I agree with Anthro: just list in plain English how the meat is raised and prepared! I like as many specific facts on my food as possible. =)

  • FoodRenegade: YES!

    Melissa: I’m not sure that farmers who simply administer medicinal antibiotics to those animals who are validly ill with an infection would be penalized – I certainly hope not. Indeed, I hope this would be targeted at the much larger-scale factory farm practice of administering a constant stream of antibiotics for preventative reasons and to boost growth – an extremely problematic practice.

  • Chad

    Melissa – I agree in that I hope producers (large or small) look out for the animal’s health. Sometimes giving animals certain vaccinations etc. is simply used as a preventative similar to why kids take vitamins, and flouride in toothpaste. Therein “lies the rub.” The concern with only using atibiotics “when needed” potentially becomes a labeling(sp?) problem.

  • While I applaud the USDA and any other group trying to set commonly accepted standards, I believe it misses the point. In my opinion the best way to ensure your beef is healthy and sustainable is to know the grower, visit their farm, see the butcher shop it is sent to. What we need to do is remove the anonymity that supermarkets have brought, where we don’t know where our food comes from or what happens to it before we get it.

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  • Nan Cornehl

    I just read that seaweed liquid could be injected into “natural chicken” I have a deathly allegy to this. Now do I quit eating chicken?

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  • Esteban

    Buy pasture raised chicken and eggs