WATTAgNet: Will Hormel suit outcome signal end of ‘natural’ label?

Photo by Jason Morrison | Freeimages.com

Court determines company was not being deceptive with use of the word ‘natural,’ but public is learning that such a label doesn’t mean much

by Roy Graber | April 15, 2019

The overuse of labels on meat and poultry products has been the topic of many discussions, and the consensus reached in most of those discussions I have heard is many of those labels are meaningless.

Now, the judicial system agrees.

On April 8, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), that accused Hormel Foods of being deceptive through the use of the word “natural,” Bloomberg News reported.

ALDF argued that products from animals that have been treated with antibiotics or have been raised indoors, are not “naturally” raised by most consumers perceptions.

But according to the court, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows the use of the word “natural” as long the product carrying the label contains no artificial ingredients and has been minimally processed, and therefore, the Hormel products in question like the Natural Choice pork products, do meet the criteria to legally carry the “natural label.”

“Our position has always been that Hormel Natural Choice products are produced, labeled, and marketed in conformance with all applicable laws and regulations,” Hormel said in a statement. “The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has specifically reviewed and approved the labels for Hormel Natural Choice branded products, including scrutinizing and approving the ‘Natural’ and ‘Preservative’-related language.” 

Is the ‘natural’ label really necessary?

There is no doubt that the reason such labels are used are to make the consumers feel good about purchasing and eating these products. After all, people are increasingly more inquisitive about the positive attributes of the foods they eat and feed their families, whether they are really informed about agriculture and food production or not.

And while this court verdict is a win for Hormel Foods and other companies that may use that label properly under USDA requirements, it can also be viewed as a public relations challenge for the meat and poultry industry.

When a verdict like this gets reported through a major media outlet such as Bloomberg, and then carried on the Yahoo! News page, which is were I first saw it, it gets in front of a lot of eyes. And through Yahoo!, it gets subject to hundreds of online comments. At the time of this writing, 2,330 comments were posted on the article. Many of those comments acknowledged that Hormel followed the rules, yet people still questioned the rules.

Here are a few of the comments that jumped out at me:

  • “If the companies meet the standard approved by the USDA then so be it. If you really want ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’ learn to hunt.”
  • “People want ‘natural’ but they also want it to remain fresh for the next 2 weeks out of convenience; (You) can’t have everything and consumers need to be realistic.”
  • “Natural doesn’t necessarily mean good. Snake venom is natural.”
  • “This isn’t a secret. Natural and organic have both become buzz words that mean absolutely nothing on a package. Read the ingredients and go from there.”

Other comments were less kind. However, if I took nothing else away from reading a portion of the comments, it was clear that people either think the natural label should mean something different, or they were finding out the label doesn’t mean much.

So why use it? It seems to me, especially with this new attention, it would be best for meat and poultry companies to just leave it off and look to other areas that might differentiate their products as superior to others.