All Natural *

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Alas – here we go again.

What does All Natural mean to you?  The current adage is ask 10 people and get 10 different answers.  Actually whether you know what all natural means also depends largely upon your background and your knowledge.

As anyone who reads this site regularly, you know that my background is meat and poultry.  I’ve worked in that industry for over 20 years and I know what all natural means when it appears on a label – or at least I think I do.  I’ve done my fair share of label submittals documenting why my products were all natural.  I’ve worked with USDA to explain what, when and how.  I’ve attended public and industry meetings and hearings where very smart folks have argued why the addition of sodium nitrate shouldn’t render a product not all natural.

When I first began work in industry a USDA label specialist explained their approval of all natural as something that a home consumer could do to the product – grind it, slice it, cook it, marinate it.  That was pretty clear to me and how I’ve always associated the term.  Do you run breast cages through a Wolfking to produce MSP? Not likely to be labeled all natural.  Addition of various chemicals and preservatives? Not likely to be labeled all natural.  Think of the USDA required note All Natural * Minimally Processed, No Artificial Ingredients.

The recent hub bub as detailed by General Mills Class Action Lawsuit and Kashi to drop ‘All Natural’ claim as well as FDA comments and other news agencies picking up a story and providing expert opinions on something they really know little about is making matters worse.  For the most part, the issue is consumers not understanding nor caring to learn what food terms mean.  Like it or not, as a consumer, it is our responsibility to understand where our money is going and what the terms mean.  Granted, as a ‘industry insider’ I have insight other may not but the information is available to all.  I know nothing about cleaning products.  If I decide to buy certified organic cleaning products it is my responsibility to determine what that means and whether I am willing to spend more for the product.  The company has the responsibility to not mislead me but proper use of a defined term should not be viewed as misleading.  But in reality that’s where the problem for All Natural arises.

USDA has a plain definition.  FDA does not.  Couple that with the fact that FDA has no label review and approval process (USDA does) and the term Natural has gotten an undeserved worthless term reputation.  The non-meat food world uses the term loosely with little definition.  Consumers don’t separate the meat world from the other but those of us in industry do making the issue to a consumer much larger than it may seem to me.

The amount of press this topic has gotten yet again in recent days will hopefully move government officials to address it once and for all.  It’s all well and good for USDA to sit on their pedestal and say “we have a definition” but if the general consumer doesn’t understand nor differentiate the problem is not going to go away.  Distrust is the US food system is at an all time high.  It is our (industry and government) responsibility to improve this opinion.  The vast majority of companies do not intend to mislead their customers and if we could only develop an easily understood and simple to enforce program I believe it would be adhered to by industry and embraced by consumers.  I’m willing to do my part – are you?