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Natural meat: An opportunity for producers?

By Todd Hagenbuch, RMFU Vice President

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service held a hearing Jan. 17, in Denver to ask the question, “What does the term ‘natural’ mean when applied to beef, lamb, pork or chicken?” One of the three meetings held in the country to pose the question, producers and industry leaders from throughout the west and mid-west attended to share their views and opinions on new standards for the ‘natural’ label. I listened with interest as folks shared their views, and was glad to have the opportunity to share my own views on the subject before the panel of government folks who flew in from Washington D.C. to visit with us.

Currently, the term ‘natural’ means that no artificial additives were used in the preparation of the meat and that it has been minimally processed. The guidelines for ‘natural’ were developed in the 1980s to provide a label for fruits, juices, and vegetables that were ‘whole,’ as nature intended. The label has been applied to meats since then, but the rules surrounding the label have made it possible to sell meat labeled ‘natural’ that certainly doesn’t mean it is ‘as nature intended.’

Ken Macy, RMFU board member from Pine Bluffs, Wyo., recounted a story about a meat market he entered a few years back that was featuring ‘natural beef.’ When he asked what ‘natural beef’ was, the butcher replied that it meant the beef was free of salt and marinade, and that it had been ground and /or cut without ice chips. In his testimony, he asked: “Do you think the average consumer would have asked? Do you think this is what they think ‘natural’ beef is?” The range of ideas for what ‘natural’ meats should be was varied, but most agreed on the basics for meat to be designated ‘natural’:

1. The animal should be free of artificial growth hormones.
2. Animal by-products should not be part of the animal’s diet.
3. Antibiotics should not be part of the animal’s diet, and antibiotics should only be used on a case-by-case, individual animal basis.

Some of the folks who testified wanted the language to go a bit further, including regulations that dictated the type of environment in which an animal should be raised. The argument that hogs raised by factory farms in small farrowing crates should not be labeled ‘natural’ has merit; chicken raised in packed cages probably should not be labeled ‘natural’ either. I don’t look for this language to be included in the revision, but I think consumers will demand it in the future.

RMFU has many members producing ‘natural’ meats, and consumers are demanding these products. We look forward to working with interested parties to make sure this labeling change happens for the benefit of consumers and producers alike.