What does meat labeled natural or naturally raised really mean?

Definitions exist for meat labeled Natural from USDA FSIS. Other marketing claims may or may not have clear definitions.

Much like the organic food movement, foods labeled natural have seen steady growth in the past decade. But what are the requirements for labeling meat as such? There are numerous marketing claims out there, but it gets a little cloudy to producers and consumers as to what exactly each claim means.

Examples of marketing claims or terminology often used are: breed, natural, sustainable, traceable, tender, grain fed, grass fed, organic, local, naturally raised, animal handling/welfare, pasture raised/free range, age/source verified, certified or verified. There are guidelines or definitions for using some of these terms on food labels and not for other terms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) must approve a sketch of a label that contains a marketing claim. All labels must be approved by USDA FSIS and not be false or misleading to consumers. Claims are evaluated on an individual case basis and must include a detailed written protocol of how the livestock were raised from birth to slaughter; a signed affidavit declaring the specifics of the production claim; an explanation of the diet and raising practices; and a product tracing and segregation mechanism (identification and segregation of livestock and product).

The term “natural” on a meat label, as defined by USDA FSIS, indicates that “the product does not contain artificial flavors, colorings, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients” and that the product and its ingredients are minimally processed. An additional statement must be added to the label that explains this. For example, “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.”

Cured processed meat products like hams and bacon typically contain sodium nitrite and antimicrobials for the development of cured flavor, color, and as a safety measure. “Naturally cured” meat products have no official definition but are either uncured or have similar appearance and flavor to cured meat products without the addition of sodium nitrite or antimicrobials (i.e., artificial flavors, colorings, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients). Alternative antimicrobial ingredients used to achieve cured flavor and color include vegetable, cherry, or lemon powders. There are some safety concerns connected to “naturally cured” products because of the exclusion of sodium nitrite and antimicrobials that prevent toxins produced from Clostridium botulinum, control spoilage organisims like Clostridium perfringens, and control pathogens such as Listeria monosytogenes. More natural and organic ingredients are being evaluated for their antimicrobial properties.

Naturally Raised refers to live animal production practices and falls under a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) voluntary marketing claim standard. The marketing claim standard was established as a label marketing claim to be third-party verified by USDA AMS. The three core factors include, “no growth promotants were administered, no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered, and no animal by-products were fed to the animals.” The term Naturally Raised is not currently allowed to be on meat and poultry labels because it can be confused with the Natural claim. Naturally Raised can only be used to market live animals. There is proposed rulemaking on “natural” in meat and poultry products to be further clarified because consumers want to more know about how their meat was raised and because of the confusion with production practice claims.

There are also advertising claims that are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission for “green” terms like “environmentally friendly” or “recycled.” Most of these “green” labeling or advertising claims are used in packaging with regard to the food industry. 

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