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Meat Firms Give USDA an Earful on 'Natural' Label

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Meat Firms Give USDA an Earful on 'Natural' Label

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Meat Firms Give USDA an Earful on 'Natural' Label

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams with this question.

What makes food natural? Walk through the supermarket and you see the word natural everywhere. On cereal boxes, cans of soup, in the frozen food section and in the meat case.

NORRIS: Well, the Department of Agriculture is trying to decide what qualifies as natural when it comes to meat and poultry. It heard from meat processors and food companies today at a public meeting. They were pushing for stricter guidelines hoping to gain marketing advantage.

Critics say the definition will likely be too broad. They say consumers, for instance, have no idea that chickens injected with saline solution and other preservatives can be labeled natural. We'll talk with nutrition and food safety expert Marion Nestle in just a few minutes.

First, NPR's Allison Aubrey has this report.

ALLISON AUBREY: Long before the word Spam referred to unsolicited emails, most people knew Spam as ham in a can, processed meat sold in tins. Hormel Foods' Julie Craven says her company's still making it.

Ms. JULIE CRAVEN (Hormel Foods): We love Spam. Spam has been around with us for 70 years. Sort of the original convenience food.

AUBREY: But these days, Hormel is shifting its focus. Craven says many consumers seem to want more than convenience. They want natural, too. In order to meet this demand, Hormel has added a line of deli meats called Natural Choice. Instead of the chemical preservatives you find in Spam, the new lunch meats are preserved using a high pressure pasteurization system where the meats are dumped into a chamber of water.

Ms. CRAVEN: The product is already packaged and it goes into a chamber where it is under high pressure for a very short time and afterward the product is intact. The product looks the same, tastes the same but any of the bacteria have been affected.

AUBREY: Or killed off. Hormel wants its natural choice meats to stand out. They argue food still being preserved with chemical additives are fine but shouldn't get the natural label.

Ms. CRAVEN: Our feeling is, is that consumers expect a product with natural on the front label to have a very clean ingredient statement on the back label and that the ingredient statement would not include chemical preservatives like a sodium lactate or a potassium lactate.

AUBREY: Sodium lactate is a salt based preservative that's considered 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 today is injecting the meat with saline solution, basically just salty water. The additive itself, salt, is of course natural. But is it natural to pump it into chicken. The Sanderson Farms Company based in Laurel, Mississippi, says no. President Lampkin Butts says Sanderson chickens have nothing added to them.

Mr. LAMPKIN BUTTS (Sanderson Farms Company): We have been promoting our product, particularly the last three years, as 100 percent chicken naturally.

AUBREY: He says the problem is that most consumers don't read food labels, so they don't realize his competitors' meats are injected with additives such as salty water. For Butts, this is not only a marketing challenge, it's also a financial concern. When his competitors pump in salt water, it makes their chicken heavier by up to 15 percent.

Mr. BUTTS: By selling that much water instead of chicken, they could offset the cost.

AUBREY: So the politics of food labeling have as much to do with marketing and economics as they do with trying to help consumers. This may be why there's no clear consensus on the meaning of something as simple as the word natural.

Mr. CHRIS COSENTINO(ph): I think the term 'natural' has been thrown around so much, it's so watered down.

AUBREY: Chris Cosentino is a chef at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. When he buys meats, he goes directly to the ranch so he knows how the animals are raised and treated. He says no wonder consumers are confused when they grocery shop, because the natural claims appear everywhere.

Mr. COSENTINO: You know, natural whole grains, natural meat, natural apples, natural this. Well, everything's natural at one point in its time, until we go and mess around with it.

AUBREY: It's now the Department of Agriculture's job to figure out how much messing around constitutes something more than minimal processing. If you've got ideas, write to them. They're taking public comments through January 11.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Washington.

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