The current emphasis on production methods in food labeling — organic, fair trade and hormone-free, for example — has brought new scrutiny of the term “natural.”
Until these new claims came along, natural, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meant “minimally processed.” The open-ended definition left plenty of loopholes for manufacturers and processors to exploit, and the word is seen as a toothless classification that's no match for the more specific labels gracing today's packages. A recent survey by Consumer Reports magazine found that 86% of respondents believed natural as a label fell short of expectations.
A partial remedy is in the works. The USDA is now working on a voluntary “naturally raised” claim particular to the meat category. It states that livestock cannot be treated with antibiotics or growth promotants, and can never be fed animal byproducts. The public comment period for the standard ended late last month, and now the USDA is working on drafting a final rule. Critics point out that it still falls short because it does not address animal confinement, which some believe should be part of any natural definition.
This, in turn, raises a much more basic issue. Many want to see the agency overhaul its definition of natural — not just supplement it with yet another label.
“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,” said Mel Coleman, Jr., chief executive of Coleman Meats, Golden, Colo.