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Food Politics

Politics of the Plate: Obfuscation is Only Natural

The USDA finally defines “natural” foods, but with a huge oversight.

In 2008, fully one-third of new food or drink products introduced in the United States carried the claim “natural.” Even Pizza Hut, not at the top of most people’s lists of environmentally sensitive organizations, has announced that it will roll out an all-natural menu. With all this corporate naturalness in the air, it’s good to see that the lexicographers at the USDA have finally decided to define “natural” for livestock and meat. After input from more than 44,000 companies, farmers, and consumers, the agency says products must meet the following criteria to be called USDA natural:

“Livestock used for producing meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants or antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control) and were never fed animal byproducts.”

(The parenthetical jargon exempts some antibiotics used to kill organisms that give farm animals severe diarrhea.)

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems. One, the program is voluntary. Two, the USDA’s jurisdiction over “natural” is limited to meat and poultry. The FDA controls the wording used to describe nearly everything else we put into our mouths, and it has yet to define the popular marketing term. So, outside of the meat department, “natural” still means anything the manufacturer wants it to mean.