A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible — claims you will find on food packaging today.
The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).
In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.
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Despite what you might think, a natural label claim has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”
In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.
The reality of ‘natural’ meat
The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.
It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.
Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.
It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?
Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.
Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.
We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.
Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.
Main photo: The “natural” label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA