Labels on meat can be misleading

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November 13, 2011 - 6:00pm

The word "natural" is laden with connotations. Some labels even go so far as to picture an idyllic red bar the kind that conjures up an Old MacDonald-style farm where they feed animals from a bucket. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture meaning of the "100% Natural" or "All Natural" label isn't what most people think; according to a Food Safety and Inspections Service representative, all it means is the meat is "minimally processed with no artificial ingredients."

Food Safety and Inspections Service is the USDA agency charged with verifying that meat labels are truthful, accurate and not misleading. But they only deal with labels about food - not animals.

The USDA knows this is confusing to consumers - they've done surveys that find most people are like those I talked to in the grocery store - they think the term refers to how the animal was raised.

But despite the confusion, the use of the word "natural" on labels has been growing.

Label expeditor Susan Glenn said nearly half the label applications she sees include the word natural.

Glenn works at Prime Label Consultants in Washington, D.C. Basically, she helps meat companies get their labels approved by the USDA. Glenn attended a meeting a few years ago with USDA, industry and consumer advocacy groups.

"Everybody had their own definition of natural," she said. "Some were adamant and said it should be nothing in there, others disagreed."

Not only that, but many consumers think the term "natural" is fairly similar to "organic," said Patty Lovera of the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch.

"If you go look at a store that has some organic (food), they probably have some natural (food) right next to it," she said. "That's cheaper, and if the marketing hype works and people think that label means something, (that) they can save money and go to natural, that might cut into organic."

Unlike natural foods, organic foods have to go through a USDA verification program and meet a series of strict rules. Organic meat generally is more expensive to raise because it comes from animals that aren't treated with antibiotics and only eat organic, non-genetically modified food.

In part to address the misperception that the natural label is about how the animal is raised, the marketing branch of the USDA developed a new label called "naturally raised."

"They got bright idea at the end Bush administration to put out kind of a super umbrella that was naturally raised,' and when you look at what they put out - it's not all that impressive," Lovera said. "So it's a collection of a couple of things, lumped together, and given the grandiose label of naturally raised."

But you won't see that label in your grocery story anytime soon. When the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service went to release the term "naturally raised" a few years ago, a flood of complaints erupted from consumer advocacy groups, including Food and Water Watch.

"So you've got two different wings of an agency creating chaos for consumers at the meat case who shouldn't have to have a law degree to figure out which branch of government certified which claim," Lovera said.

Unlike natural, which only means the meat doesn't have any artificial ingredients added, the naturally raised label was meant to refer to livestock raised entirely without growth promotants, without antibiotics, and that have never been fed animal by-products.

Why don't they just list the three traits on the meat label? Doesn't naturally raised get really confusing - it's so similar to "natural" and yet it has a totally different meaning.

"These subjective umbrella terms are really difficult," said Craig Morris of the Ag Marketing Service. "That's been one of the greater challenges in AMS, because in general, marketers like those umbrella terms. Because if you end up with a package of meat with 15 or 20 claims, you don't see the meat anymore, so they like to encapsulate it in one catchy word."

Still; USDA regulators decide to put the label "naturally raised" on hold. They're still in the process of coming up with a more clear definition.

Until then, the term "natural" will still mostly be a buzzword for marketers that tells consumers very little about the meat behind the label. For those who want to know how their meat was raised, look for more specific terms like organic, cage-free or 100 percent grass-fed.

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