Many consumers assume that when a meat label says “Natural”, it is better for you, better for the environment and that the animals involved were raised without growth hormones or antibiotics in their natural environments. However this is not necessarily always the case. Many national brands loosely use the term “Natural” on their products without any of the above attributes being met – and it is perfectly legal to do so.
The USDA provides clear and specific definitions for “Natural” and “Organic” product labeling. It is important to understand that foods which meet USDA organic certification are authorized to use the “USDA Organic” seal, which has the word ‘organic’ on it. “Natural” labeling requirements per the USDA are quite different.
What the USDA Means by Natural
The definition of “Natural” according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency responsible for ensuring truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products is as follows:
NATURAL A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means the product is processed in a manner which does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
Food labeling can be ambiguous and tough to digest at times (pardon the pun). The easiest way to grasp a firm comprehension for industry terms is to connect the dots between definition and application.
The USDA definition of Natural for fresh meats, such as beef, pork, veal and lamb, means the meat is processed (harvested at the packing plant) without using food additives during processing such as: flavor enhancers, food colorings, binders, nitrites, phosphates, and the like. Again: USDA Natural means that meat was harvested at a packaging plant without using food additives.
Fresh meat packing plants that harvest beef, pork, veal or lamb and fabricate them into sub primal cuts for retail and food service, do so without fundamentally altering the meat with artificial ingredients or added colorings – this is standard practice today.
Technically then, meat packers can label many of their brands Natural and many do. This is evidenced by the plethora of brand names in the market today making natural claims on their labels poised with pictures and stories of beautiful farms and green pastures making you feel warm and fuzzy about the product you’re purchasing.
What You Expect from Natural …is probably missing
The USDA’s definition of “Natural” does not speak to the exclusion of growth hormones and antibiotics, or humane animal treatment or sustainable farming practices. But that’s what most consumers, Restaurateurs and Chefs are looking for when they want truly “Natural” meats.
How to Find the Natural You (Really) Want
For those looking for a more complete natural product, there are stricter label definitions for “Natural” to keep watch for. Highly defined all Natural meats usually come with one or more of the following package statements:
Never/Ever Growth Hormones or Antibiotics Animals raised in this program were never, ever, given growth hormones to accelerate weight gain and speed to market, nor were the animals given antibiotics during their lifetime. These animals are raised on an all natural 100% vegetarian diet up to harvest.
Humanely Raised Animals are raised outdoors in open pastures where they are free to roam with plenty of access to food and water. As compared to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, “CAFOs”, where animals are raised in confined indoor industrial farming pens.
Sustainably Raised These animals are raised in harmony with farming practices that preserve the land and water for future generations such as seasonal crop rotation and fewer animals per acre. (The Chipolte restaurant chain presented an excellent illustration of sustainable practice in their last Super Bowl commercial.)
Quality, Cost & Satisfaction
One of the easiest ways to shop for high quality Natural meats is to become familiar with the brands which produce at this level. Niman Ranch and Tallgrass Beef are two industry leaders who employ the stricter definition of Natural. These types of brands do cost more than commodity meats and those brands claiming the lesser USDA definition of “Natural” on their label because it costs more to raise the animals these ways.
There is a growing trend for “Farm to Fork” foods and meats. To make sure your values and needs are being met when choosing “Natural” meats, match your desires to the appropriate label definitions.