Meat Firms Give USDA an Earful on 'Natural' Label

If you'd like to send comments to the USDA regarding the petition to establish a definition for the voluntary claim "natural," you can submit them to the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a new definition of "natural foods," at least when it comes to meat and poultry. At a public meeting, the agency heard from critics who say that for meat labels, a "natural" claim should only be allowed when meats don't contain any additives or preservatives.

But as any walk through the supermarket can prove, the word "natural" pops up everywhere: on cereal boxes and cans of soup; in the frozen foods section; and in the meat case.

The USDA heard from meat processors and food companies at a public meeting. They are pushing for stricter guidelines, hoping to gain marketing advantage.

Critics say the proposed definition change will likely be too broad, and won't help consumers, who may have no idea that chickens injected with saline solution and other preservatives can be labeled "natural."

Sodium lactate, a salt-based preservative, is considered to be safe and effective. But whether it's natural is up for debate. The USDA's current definition says that a product labeled as natural should not contain any artificial flavor, coloring or chemical preservative.

The policy also says that meats should not be more than minimally processed — a pretty vague directive.

One common technique used by chicken processors is to inject the meat with saline solution. The additive itself is natural. But is it natural to pump it into chicken?

Manufacturers like the Sanderson Farms Company, based in Laurel, Miss., and Hormel, makers of the Natural Choice line of deli meats, say it isn't. And they want their products to stand apart from meats treated with salt or other materials.

The Department of Agriculture will be taking public comments on processing meat through Jan. 11.

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