By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade
What is naturally raised?
Does it mean an animal that has never been given antibiotics or was antibiotic-free the last 60 days? Can a problematic calf be given a non-vegetative protein source and be classified as natural? These questions and others have prompted USDA"s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) and the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to re-evaluate its 20-year-old natural" policy.
On Dec. 11, USDA-AMS hosted the first of three public hearings in the Jefferson Auditorium at the USDA building to begin its fact-finding on what the new legislation will look like.
We are looking for recommendations. We are looking for suggestions that will enable us to develop a standard that will better define the term "naturally raised," said USDA Undersecretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs Bruce Knight. The standard that the Ag Marketing Service intends to develop will specify what protocols farmers and ranchers should follow to claim livestock and poultry they produce are, in fact, naturally raised."
This was the first of three sessions discussing the proposals. The second two are scheduled for Jan. 17 at the Heat Regency Tech Center, Denver and Jan. 18, Seattle Marietta SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Wash.
The hearings are in response to a petition for the rulemaking dated Oct. 9 from Hormel Foods.
If the policy is misused, 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," said Mark Roberts, manager technical services and regulatory affairs at Hormel Foods. As is made clear in the petition, consumers, manufactuers and the various agencies all believe rulemaking is essential to avoid this result."
The confusion stems from the changes in food processing and the variability between different farms on how they define a naturally raised animal.
Growing consumer demand for natural products and a wide variety of claims make a published uniform standard a good idea to consider, both for livestock producers and ultimately for consumers," said Knight. Some customers also want to be assured that meat and poultry product as naturally raised comes from animals that have not been fed animal byproducts, have been raised on a vegetarian diet, have lived under free-range conditions, and have been raised with careful regard to animal welfare concerns.
That defines the parameters of the debate, but without uniform standards it is difficult for consumers or anyone to sort through the differing claims in the marketplace today."
There is a wide variety on approved natural claims. Some producers do not use growth promoters, animal byproducts and other treatments in the finishing stage, others refrain during the last 100 days of feed and others follow the never-ever" policy.
Under present policy, each voluntary claim is reviewed on a case-by-case basis by USDA-FSIS.
What is the minimum threshold for compliance with this standard if, in fact, there would be one?" said Martin O"Connor, chief standards, analysis and technology branch, USDA-AMS livestock and seed program.
Robert Post, USDA-FSIS office of policy, program and employee development, said USDA-FSIS developed naturally raised labeling guidelines in the FSIS Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book. One area of growing claims FSIS is seeing are related to no added hormones, no antibiotics and free-range.
The vagueness of the current definition, first established some 24 years ago, has sown seeds of consumer confusion and has encouraged clever marketers to trumpet the word "natural" on packages of their meat and poultry, even though such meat may not have come from animals that were raised naturally," said Mack Graves, CEO, Western Grasslands, on what the regulations should consider. The use of the term must be clearly defined for meat and poultry from conception to consumption."
The current guidelines permit processors a petition for natural meat and poultry labeling. The definition of natural" is a claim that meat and poultry products have minimal processing and contain no artificial flavors, colors, chemical preservatives and other synthetic ingredients.
In essence, under this definition almost anyone can slap a natural label on a single-ingredient, minimally processed product. It is too vague. It misrepresents those consumer expectations," said Dennis Stiffler of Coleman Natural Foods.
USDA-AMS is responsible for developing uniform marketing standards. Product labeling is under USDA-FSIS. Producers have to submit testimonials and affidavits disclosing their practices to meet their claims.
We do urge you to please consider systems similar to what you are familiar with in the NOP (National Organic Program)," said Christopher Ely of Applegate Farms. The National Organic Standard Board is a separate committee that helps work directly with the NOP in helping establish and suggest regulations. If a similar board were put together of many of the industry leaders in the present natural meat industry to help direct comments and such to them, we would urge you to do this."
Colette Kaster of Premium Standard Farms, a pork producer, said, We support the "no antibiotic ever" claim, what many people call the "never-ever" claim as opposed to a specific number of days or a production period. We would also like to request a specific definition of "vegetarian-fed," particularly as it relates to weaned animals who may need supplements of protein such as milk products or egg products for a brief period of time."
Kaster suggested that all types of rearing systems meet recognized standards from organizations such as the National Pork Board or the American Humane Association.
Consumer groups petitioned USDA-AMS to make USDA"s organic program the standard for naturally raised, citing concerns that the naturally raised label will confuse consumers.
The naturally raised label could be competition for the already established voluntary label "certified organic,""said Emily Wurth of the Food and Water Watch. Certified-organic standards are considered by consumers to be most equivalent to naturally raised livestock."
Absent such an organic and beyond standard, the allowance of a naturally raised label claim will only mislead consumers and add a premium to products that are produced under a standard that pales in comparison to the naturalness of existing organic standards," said Scott Kalafatis, Center for Food Safety.