What the Hormel Lawsuit Taught us About the "Natural" Food Label

In June 2016, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a non-profit law organization that aims to protect the rights and advance the interests of animals through the legal system, filed a lawsuit alleging that Hormel was misleading consumers through its “Natural Choice” product line of lunch meats and bacon. They filed the suit stating that it was in violation of the DC Consumer Protection Procedures Act. The basis of the lawsuit was that the ALDF alleged that Hormel used the “natural” food label claim although the products contain additives, hormones, antibiotics, and artificial preservatives.

Surveys and research conducted over the last few years have found one thing in common: consumers don’t understand what “natural” means when they see this claim on food labels and packaging. In 2014, a survey conducted by Consumer Reports of over 1,000 people found that 66% think they term “natural” means the food item has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms. In addition to the Consumer Reports survey, research has also shown that 47% of American consumers actively look for natural products and 65% consider natural products as “better.” Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but natural doesn’t mean the product is better, and it doesn’t mean that the product is pesticide or GMO-free.

According to the FDA, the term “natural” means that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. The FDA adds that their definition did not intend to address food production methods (ex: pesticide application), nor does it address food processing or manufacturing methods. And the USDA has their own definition of “natural” for meat and poultry products, which is, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as ’no artificial ingredients; minimally processed’).”

Because this has been such a controversial term, the FDA requested public comments during an open comment period in 2015-2016 to seek input on what “natural” means, or what it should mean for consumers. If you would like to read all of the 7,687 comments submitted, you can do so here. (Warning: there are some comments that contain explicit language). I’m looking forward to seeing if, and how, they will use the comments to update the definition of “natural.”

The Hormel lawsuit, which was dismissed last week by a judge in a Washington, D.C., Superior Court, teaches us that the term “natural” means very little, if anything, compared to other more regulated food labeling claims, such as organic. Consumers should know that natural is one of the most loosely regulated terms. Natural does not mean antibiotic-free; it does not mean free-range; it does not mean organic. I think another misconception among consumers is that “natural” means healthy and it most certainly does not. A bag of chips with the word “natural” across the front of the package is likely no different nutritionally than the bag of chips without the word natural on it. It’s still a bag of chips. So on your next trip to the store keep in mind that a “natural” food label is pretty meaningless as this lawsuit, and all of the ones before it, have shown us.