USDA “Natural” Label a Misnomer

By on November 11, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Would you consider meat to be “natural” if it came from an animal who was raised in lifelong confinement on a factory farm? How about if the animal was fed manure and other animal waste? And what about if the animal was routinely dosed with antibiotics and other drugs for non-therapeutic reasons?

Producers and retailers can legally affix that label even if the production practices mentioned above are used.

Egg-laying hen in battery cage
East Bay Animal Advocates

For many years, transcending any single Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed companies to affix this label on animal products, as long as the meat, post-slaughter, is minimally processed and no artificial ingredients are added. Because of this, respected consumer organizations do not deem the “natural” label, as defined by USDA standards, to be meaningful or the least bit helpful as consumers sort out in the marketplace how the animals were raised prior to slaughter.

Opinion polls have shown that most consumers seek out foods labeled as “natural.” Some pay more for meats with this label. In fact, one recent survey found that consumers prefer the “natural” label over the “organic” label, not understanding that “USDA organic” at least has minimal welfare standards, while the term “natural” does not.

The HSUS is asking the USDA to make changes to its label regulations, since the term “natural” has been so corrupted. We’re calling for that label, as it is now defined, to be replaced by “minimally processed” and “no artificial ingredients added” labels, so consumers will better understand what they’re buying. And we’re arguing that any label on meat containing the word “natural” must ensure that the animal, from conception to slaughter, was cared for in a manner that consumers will reasonably understand is natural—meaning, among other things, no caging, crating, or extreme confinement; no waste products as feed; and no routine non-therapeutic use of drugs.

The Obama Administration has asserted to the American public that it intends to be fully transparent. Here is a good opportunity for the Administration to put that principle into practice by revamping this label—and moving from opaqueness to transparency. I hope you’ll take a few moments to contact the USDA by this Friday, the deadline for public comment.

A postscript: On this Veterans Day, as we honor those in the armed forces who have served our country, I draw your attention to a story about military working dogs in southern Afghanistan who face extreme working conditions. Responding to a request from an Army veterinary officer, The HSUS recently provided much-needed cooling vests and cooling pads to the unit's 100 dogs. It's an honor to be able to help, in some small way, those dogs who serve in war beside their human handlers.

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