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“Natural” Food: Take That With A Grain of Salt

“Natural” Food: Take That With A Grain of Salt

Image via foodnavigator-usa.

By Leslie Brueckner

Senior Attorney

What do you think when you see the word “natural” prominently displayed on a package of chicken breasts?  If you are like me, you assume it means that the hen was raised without antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, and genetically engineered feed. You might also assume that she was housed in a “natural” environment, with fresh air, soil or grass, and room to move and stretch her legs.

And, if you’re like me, you might feel (at least sorta) okay about buying the product because it didn’t come from one of these terrible factory farms we hear so much about.

I have some sobering news: As it turns out, “natural” doesn’t mean ANY of those things when it comes to the labels manufacturers are allowed to place on food. 

In fact, according to petitions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration filed last week by Consumer Reports and a host of other consumer watchdogs (including Public Justice), meat labeled as “natural“ can come from animals that were raised with daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs, given artificial growth hormones, fed genetically engineered soy and corn feed and other artificial ingredients, and continually confined indoors.   

The root of the problem is that the U.S. government has done very little to control this type of misleading advertising. The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry, allows a product to be called “natural” if it contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.”  Importantly, this standard says nothing about the way animals are treated before they are slaughtered, so meat producers can do just about anything to their animals while they are still alive and still call the meat “natural” when it hits your grocery shelf. 

The situation is no better over at the FDA, which regulates the labeling of foods other than meat and poultry products.  The FDA allows food to be labeled as “natural” so long as “nothing artificial or synthetic” is added, even if the crops were doused with toxic pesticides or grown from genetically modified (GMO) seeds.

In short, “natural” often means anything but. Yet consumers are buying so-called “natural” products in droves, having been lulled into a false sense of security by misleading labels that hide the truth about where our food is really coming from.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve fallen for this ploy, because you’re not alone. According to a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, the majority of consumers think that the “natural” label on meat and poultry currently means that no artificial ingredients were added to the meat/poultry (70 percent), no growth hormones were used (68 percent), the animals’ feed contained no GMOs (64 percent) or artificial ingredients (60 percent), and no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60 percent). As for non-meat products, the majority of consumers think that food labeled “natural” was produced without toxic pesticides or artificial ingredients or colors (66 percent), chemicals (65 percent), or GMOs (64 percent). 

The upshot is that consumers everywhere are being misled, and corporations across the nation are profiting from modes of food production that threaten public health and safety in a serious way.

Lest this sound like hyperbole, consider the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming. A few months ago, I wrote that over 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used for livestock production. The reason? Antibiotics make healthy animals grow faster and suppress diseases that arise due to the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in which they are raised. The inevitable result of this practice has been an increased resistance to infections in humans, which kills thousands of people every year.

Because the government has refused to place any meaningful restrictions on antibiotic use in agriculture, the only way to stop the madness is for consumers to stop buying meat, poultry, and dairy produced in factory farms. A lot of consumers are trying to do just that, but this is where the real problem with “natural” labels rears its ugly head: as the Consumer Reports survey reveals, the majority of consumers read these labels to mean that the product was raised in an “antibiotic-free” environment.

This means that as long as meat and dairy producers are allowed to slap “natural” labels on their products, consumers will continue to buy them – and, as a result, business will continue as usual with regard to antibiotic overuse in the animal industry.

This is just one example. Serious problems also exist with regard to the use of growth hormones and genetically modified feed  (just to name two more), but as long as manufacturers are allowed to use the word “natural” with impunity, the marketplace will still welcome their products with open arms.

What is to be done?  Our petitions offer a solution, at least for the short term: they argue that because the U.S. government isn’t willing to define “natural” in a way that matches consumer expectations, the USDA and the FDA should simply ban the use of the word natural outright. Such a ban would stop the widespread deception and allow consumers to get the information that they really need to make informed choices about the food they eat.

Importantly, a ban on the word “natural” wouldn’t stop food manufacturers from extolling the virtues of their product; it would merely require them to be specific about their actual methods. As a result, those manufacturers who employ truly “natural” production methods (as that term is understood by ordinary human beings like us) will be rewarded for their efforts by consumers who are willing to pay a premium for socially responsible products.

We think this makes good sense. If the government can’t manage to fix its regulations, then the only real solution – at least in the short term – is to stop the misleading labeling at its source. It’s a win-win for consumers and responsible producers; the only losers would be food producers who are currently profiting from misleading use of the word “natural.”

That can’t be a bad thing – naturally.

If you would like to sign the petitions and find out more, check out takepart.com/food-labels. We need all the help we can get.