At a grocery store in Ames, Iowa, Lavern Ackerman peered at a package of ground beef. He was mostly interested in the percent leanness, but he took a stab at deciphering what the big "Natural" sticker on the package meant.
"I thought it was that they just grass-raised them," Ackerman said.
He was wrong.
That "Natural" label has nothing to do with how the animal was raised — it only means the meat was “minimally processed with no artificial ingredients.”
But this is a common misperception, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We know for a fact that the consumer doesn't understand that natural for (meat regulators) means processing — that means after the slaughtering of the animal," said a representative of the Food Safety and Inspections Service, the USDA agency charged with verifying that meat labels are truthful, accurate and not misleading.
Despite the confusion, the "Natural" label is fairly ubiquitous at grocery store meat counters. It's on pork, chicken, and beef products, often in versions such as "100% Natural" or "All Natural."
And it has nothing to do with organic, but consumers get confused about that too, critics say.
"If you go look at a store that has some organic, they probably have some natural right next to it that's cheaper, and if the marketing hype works and people think that label means something, they can save a little bit of money and go to natural, that might cut into organic," said Patty Lovera of the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch.
Unlike natural, organic foods have to go through a USDA verification program and meet a series of strict rules. Organic meat generally is more expensive to raise because it comes from animals that aren't treated with antibiotics and only eat organic, non-genetically modified food.
Consumer confusion over meat labels hasn't gone unnoticed. In recent years the USDA has been holding meetings "too numerous to count," and says it is still working on clarifying the “Natural” label, to the representative from
A few years ago, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service came up with an idea for a new label: Naturally Raised. It refers to livestock raised entirely without growth promotants, without antibiotics, and that have never been fed animal byproducts.
"They got the bright idea at the end of the Bush administration, to put out kind of a super label or umbrella label that was like 'naturally raised,' " Lovera said. "So it was collection a couple things, and they lumped them together, and gave it this grandiose label of 'Naturally Raised.' "
But you won't see "Naturally Raised" on meat labels in the grocery store.
When the Agricultural Marketing Service proposed the term in 2009, a flood of complaints erupted from consumer advocacy groups. More than 44,000 comments came in, and Consumers Union gathered 36,000 signatures against the ruling because of the consumer confusion it might cause. That led the Food Safety and Inspections Service(with the final say in meat labels) to put the “Naturally Raised” on hold.
Food and Water Watch's Lovera said a big concern was that two different wings of the USDA were simply creating chaos at the meat case for consumers, “who shouldn't have to have law degree to figure out which branch of government certified which claim."
So why doesn't the USDA simply list the traits on the label? Why invent a term like Naturally Raised?
“In general marketers like those umbrella terms, because if you end up with a package of meat with 15 or 20 claims on them, you don't see the meat anymore, so they like to encapsulate all that into one catchy word," said Craig Morris of the Agriculture Marketing Service.
Which brings us back to “Natural.” Because while the label confusion has continued, the use of the word "natural" on labels has been growing.
Susan Glenn sees it every day. As a label expediter for Prime Label Consultants in Washington DC., Glenn helps meat companies get their labels approved by the USDA. And nearly half the label applications she sees include the word natural.
"We've had entrees for TV dinners, for companies that have natural on there. Or a single ingredient, or anywhere in between," Glenn said. Because if the entire product doesn't meet the "Natural" definition, the company could still use the word to describe an ingredient -- say for example, Grandma's Potpie made with natural chicken.
Until the USDA clarifies the term "Natural," the label and its many iterations will continue to fill the meat counter. And many meat companies are fighting to keep the current definition of the term. Hormel Foods, for one, petitioned the USDA in 2005 when the Natural label was amended to allow certain flavorings the USDA deemed natural to be used in products labeled "All Natural."
"These inconsistencies will allow a Natural label to be placed on products that contain synthetic ingredients and preservatives, which will deceive consumers and erode the 'Natural' label to a meaningless marketing ploy," Hormel representatives wrote.
The USDA did remove several ingredients from its list of natural flavorings in response to industry pressure.
But so far the USDA hasn't responded to pressure from consumer advocacy groups and industry to clarify the meaning of "Natural." The rulemaking process is ongoing, and there's no clear time frame when an agreement might be reached, the USDA said.
And an inherent challenge looming in the whole debate is that the meat label regulators don't regulate livestock production. So the agency won't be able to create a term that applies to how meat is raised. That means whatever they decide will likely not satisfy all parties.