When you see the word “natural” on a meat or poultry product, what does that mean to you? If you’re like approximately half of the likely voters surveyed by Zogby on behalf of Farm Sanctuary, you believe that meat labeled as “natural” comes from animals who were raised with free access to outdoor areas where they were able exercise and move about. And if you’re like nearly three-quarters of those surveyed, you believe that it is inappropriate for meat from animals who are kept indoors, crowded into cages and forced to stand on metal or concrete floors to be labeled as “natural.”
Based on their beliefs about what “natural” signifies, many consumers are forking over lots of money for products with this label. According to market researchers, “natural” is the leading labeling claim on new products, and according to this Chicago Tribune article, between 2007 and 2008, the natural foods market grew by 10 percent, reaching 12.9 billion dollars.
Although those reaping profits off of “natural” labeling claims don’t want you to know it, the truth is that it means very little. As explained in Farm Sanctuary’s Truth Behind the Labels report, under current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, when the term “natural” appears on a meat or poultry product, it refers only to whether artificial ingredients were added to the cut of meat after the animal it came from was slaughtered and signifies nothing about the way in which that animal was raised — or even fed — prior to his or her death. Thus, meat from animals who were fed antibiotics, hormones and animal byproducts can be labeled as “natural.” So, too, can meat from animals who spent their entire lives locked indoors in crowded crates or cages where they were forced to stand on metal or concrete floors without enough space to even turn around or spread their limbs.
If you’re a regular “Making Hay” reader you probably saw my post a couple weeks ago about “organic” labeling and you know that I’m not a fan of that standard or the USDA’s lax enforcement of it. But I have to tell you, when it comes to “natural” labeling, consumers are being misled even more, because the label means so very little — not just in practice, but also in theory.
The irony is that producers have led consumers to believe that “natural” labeling means more than “organic” labeling. According to a national survey by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency that specializes in marketing sustainability to mainstream consumers, Americans believe that a “natural” claim on a product is more meaningful than an “organic” label. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue. While “organic” claims are regulated by the federal government and certified by third parties, “natural” labels are virtually unregulated.
So what does this all add up to? We have consumers spending billions of dollars on products with a label that they think means something it does not — in other words, producers are profiting off of negligently (at best) or purposefully misleading consumers.
For years Farm Sanctuary has been speaking out against the government’s tacit approval of the cruelty and consumer deception involved in “natural” labeling. In 2007 we petitioned the USDA, urging it to either ban the labeling of meat as “natural” altogether, or prohibit producers who keep animals in conditions most consumers consider unnatural (including intensive indoor confinement) from labeling their products as “natural.” It took two years, but finally, in a notice published in the Federal Register, the USDA has formally acknowledged our petition and asked the public for comments on whether the agency should consider the conditions in which animals are raised when determining the propriety of “natural” labeling claims.
It’s important to put an end to such fundamentally misleading marketing claims for the sake of both animals and consumers. Allowing meat that comes from animals who were raised in intensive confinement to be labeled as “natural” perpetuates the myth of “happy meat” and shields consumers from the harsh reality of the cruelty inherent in modern animal agriculture. The best thing anyone who cares about farm animals can do is make the shift to veganism. But until consumers are made aware of the truth behind the meat on their plate, many are unlikely to make that transition. This is why it’s important that producers not be allowed to fatten their wallets by obscuring the reality of how the animals they raise are treated.
To help put an end to such deceptive practices, contact the USDA today and urge the agency to prohibit producers from labeling products from animals raised in intensive confinement and other cruel and unnatural conditions as “natural.”
Then, if you’re interested in learning more about consumer deception as it pertains to animal agriculture, immerse yourself in The Truth Behind the Labels.