‘Naturally’ the USDA Should Listen

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In November, the USDA released its proposal for label claims related to “naturally raised” livestock and meat. Perhaps no word in the English language has been more used and abused than “natural.” It’s been applied to everything from pain medication to certain products sold by Internet spammers that “enhance” the human condition. Well, during the next 30 days, we have a good chance to put some real meaning behind this word when it comes to meat products. It’s time to pull “natural” out of the clutches of truth-stretching advertising copy writers.

As I reported in a recent issue of Edible Twin Cities, According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, technically “natural” can be used on a food label as long as a product does not “contain any artifical flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative or any other artifical or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example).” In other words, “natural” tells a consumer nothing about how that food was raised. That’s why factory farm giants like Tyson and Smithfield can get away with marketing “natural” meat while polluting the environment and violating the basic tenets of good animal husbandry.

But a national telephone poll conducted by Consumer Reports earlier this year found that eaters want the word “natural” to be a whole lot more satisfying. Some 83 percent of the survey respondents said “natural” should mean, “raised in a natural environment”—that’s right, farrowing crates so narrow a sow can’t turn around in them do not qualify as a “natural environment.”

It’s clear that “naturally raised” needs to mean what consumers think it should mean. That’s why it’s so amazing the USDA’s proposed standards mention nothing about access to pasture or animal housing issues such as use of cages and crates. Where and how animals are raised are critical issues to farmers and consumers and need to be addressed in the final standards. If they are not addressed completely, the “natural” designation will be almost meaningless as a label that ensures a certain level of sustainable production standards.

The good news is recent experience with the grass-fed standard shows that public input can have a significantly positive impact on final USDA rules related to food labels. It’s quite striking how far off the mark the USDA’s original grass-fed proposal was. Over a period of about two years, LSP members joined over 19,000 farmers and consumers from across the country in providing comments on what the grass-fed standards should look like. The final grass-fed rules, which were released in October, aren’t perfect. But because people spoke out, they are a vast improvement over the original proposals; they are also a symbol of what happens when the USDA actually listens to the public.

Now on to the next challenge. The public has until Jan. 28 to comment on the proposed “naturally raised” rules. Check out LSP’s latest Action Alert to learn how we can take back the word “natural” and make it more than a feel-good piece of marketing fluff.

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