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Making Natural Meat More Natural

When it comes to the meat category, the term “natural” is as wide open as a Midwest cattle range. That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition, which dates back to the early 1980s, merely stipulates that the product be “minimally processed.” This, of course, fails to cover the way animals are raised, and as a result numerous processors today are slapping a “natural” claim on their meat even as they pump their animals full of hormones and antibiotics.

There are companies out there, like Coleman Natural Meats, who actually do raise and process without additives. But who can tell the difference at the supermarket level? “We need to get the labeling changed so that when you see a ‘natural’ label at retail, it specifically defines how the animal is raised,” CEO Mel Coleman, Jr. told us earlier this year. To differentiate themselves and prove their integrity, some companies have started adding their own claims. Ken Chapin, meat director at Yoke’s Fresh Market in Spokane Wash., for example, carries a line of “true natural” meat.

Natural MeatThe USDA plans to take action, but it doesn’t plan to do as Coleman, Jr. would like and revise the “natural” marketing claim. Rather, they’ve decided to put forth a “naturally raised” label. Up for public comment until the end of January, it’s a voluntary standard wherein manufacturers raise their animals without hormones, antibiotics or animal by-products. It stops short of organic, which has been troubled by high prices.

The agency’s Agriculture Marketing Service, which oversees these claims, says it’s cutting through the confusion and setting a clear standard for something that many manufacturers have decided to define on their own.

“We are just trying to do what the industry and consumers want,” said USDA spokesman Billy Cox.

But is simply adding another label — and a voluntary one at that — really the way to go? “Naturally raised” covers a hole that needed to be filled, but consumers who want to eat right will just grow more confused with this, yet another claim. The USDA should work towards cutting down on the clutter, not add to it.