‘All-natural’ turkey? Here’s why you might pay extra for nothing this Thanksgiving

By Clint Rainey

November 22, 2022

Is this “natural” turkey an ethical choice, or have I been duped this Thanksgiving? That’s a perennial holiday grocery-shopping question. And now, unsealed documents in a false-advertising lawsuit, which was settled just in time for the holiday by meat-processor giant Hormel Foods, give consumers a new reason for pause, say consumer advocates who argue that Hormel’s case details are the latest evidence that America’s meat-labeling system continues to fail consumers.

The lawsuit, brought in 2016 by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and public-interest law firm Public Justice, alleged that Hormel misled consumers by claiming its Natural Choice line of meat products was “all natural” and also met “better standards.” But the pork used in Natural Choice products came from hogs raised in the same exact conditions as the animals used in standard Hormel products—like Spam, for instance.

The unsealed discovery documents are the latest to trace how the industry attempts to exploit consumer demand for natural food products—in a ploy to “premium-tize conventional brands,” describes one industry trade group that Hormel belongs to. In their depositions, Hormel executives admitted things like, “There’s no segregation specifically done for Natural Choice products,” leading Public Justice to argue in a report published last week (alongside the unsealed documents) that because that line “was made of the exact same meat used in Hormel’s standard products,” Natural Choice’s customers were tricked into “thinking their purchases benefited their health, the environment, and animal welfare more than buying other Hormel brands might.”

Public Justice says the documents underscore how not only Hormel, but also the meat industry’s biggest trade groups, have taken advantage of labeling terms that exist in a gray area for federal regulation. At a trade show, top industry players were encouraged to follow Hormel’s example with Natural Choice by fusing “trending concepts” (think “artisanal” or “craft” food) with “clean labeling concepts” (buzzword-y phrases like “gluten free” and “no added hormones”).

According to Public Justice’s report, the lawsuit also uncovered ways that Natural Choice’s supposedly heightened meat-processing practices posed risks to consumer health. Hormel acknowledged that it received food-safety violations in facilities that processed Natural Choice products, for offenses that included allowing animal carcasses to become contaminated with “fecal material, ingesta, and milk,” failing to sterilize equipment, and ignoring bruises, sores, and infected wounds on the animals.

Consumers often say food labels like “natural” sound vague, and watchdogs like Public Justice contend this is partly the U.S. government’s fault because, while the USDA regulates other labeling terms—like “organic” (for which there’s a list of official criteria products must meet in order to use them)— most of the synonyms festooned onto food packaging today (“natural,” “free range,” “pasture raised”) are little more than dressed-up marketing gimmicks. To declare itself “organic,” the government states that a product must first be “reviewed and approved by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.”

But for the term “natural,” the USDA once began a regulatory process to define the label in 2006, but never completed it. Still, the agency does note vaguely that a product labeled “natural” is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” By that definition, Hormel was given the go-ahead to slap a number of claims onto Natural Choice products, among them “100% natural,” “natural,” and “all natural.” Hormel ads also used the additional words “clean,” “honest,” “higher standards,” “safe,” and “wholesome.”

Hormel has noted that it complies with all USDA labeling guidelines, that it stands behind its Natural Choice meat products, and that customers seem unfazed. The brand also released a limited-edition flavor of Spam last week. It is “Figgy Pudding,” and it’s already sold out at Spam.com and Amazon.