What's in a word? "That depends on what your definition of 'is' is," said President Bill Clinton. The president was not attempting to gain approval for the use of the word "natural" on a poultry product label when he parsed the meaning and use of "is," but the word "natural" is under this same sort of scrutiny in Washington. In December of 2006, the USDA FSIS agreed to rule on a petition from Hormel Foods asking the agency to review its definition of "natural" for use on meat and poultry labels. Now, almost a year after the close of the comment period, no ruling has been made by the USDA, and the FDA recently announced that it will not review the definition of "natural" for the food products it regulates.

The current USDA definition for "natural" poultry products, adopted in 1982, states:

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as - no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).

Labels for individual products are reviewed by the USDA on a case-by-case basis. In the two-plus decades under the current definition of natural, concerns have been raised over what constitutes an artificial ingredient, a coloring agent and minimal processing. Some industry sources contacted for this story complained of a lack of consistency from the USDA in the label-approval process. The poultry industry has not been able to reach a consensus on this matter, and some companies have been very public about their concerns.

What's 'natural'?

The Truthful Labeling Coalition (TLC) is made up of poultry producers, including Foster Farms, Gold'n Plump Poultry, Inc., Perdue Farms, Inc., and Sanderson Farms, Inc., and interested individuals. TLC is urging the USDA to only allow 100 percent chicken, with no additives, to be labeled as "natural." Another request of USDA by TLC is that all ingredients be printed on the label in a size that can be read by the average consumer. One of the primary targets of the coalition are poultry products that are labeled as "natural" which are "enhanced" using solutions containing salt, phosphates, seaweed extracts, additives and or other ingredients.

The rhetoric in the "natural" debate has gotten spirited. In an open letter to consumers appearing on the Sanderson Farms website (www.sandersonfarms.com/labeling/labeling.asp), Lampkin Butts, president and COO, Sanderson Farms, Inc., wrote,

"I am writing to you about this issue that should concern all of us: misleading labeling practices authorized by the USDA FSIS for fresh poultry. There are some chicken companies ‘pumping up' their fresh chicken products with up to 15 percent added solutions containing sea salt, water, carrageenan (a seaweed extract) and chicken broth yet labeling them as 100% All Natural. As a result, you may be unknowingly paying chicken prices for added water while adding unwanted sodium to your diet. I believe it is wrong for the USDA FSIS to allow companies to market their products to consumers as Natural' when in fact it has been ‘pumped' or ‘injected' with these additives."


Tyson Foods, Inc., has a different view of "enhanced" chicken than do the TLC member companies. Gary Mickelson, Tyson spokesman, said, "Our 100% All Natural Fresh Chicken bears a USDA-approved label and includes no artificial ingredients. We offer both non-marinated and marinated fresh chicken to meet the range of consumer needs, including the desire for increased tenderness and juiciness' that comes with marination.  Regardless of the form, our products qualify as natural' under USDA/FSIS guidelines."

Tyson is supportive of the revision of the definition of natural by the USDA. Mickelson said, "We have proposed a two-part definition: Chicken, beef and/or pork with no added ingredients or chicken, beef and/or pork products that contain only all natural ingredients. The proposed definition from Tyson is consistent with the definition applied to natural labeling across many food categories in the grocery store." Tyson Foods' comments to FSIS on the re-definition of "natural" for meat and poultry products can be read at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/Comments/2006-0040/2006-0040-53.pdf.

Raised without antibiotics

In June of last year, Tyson introduced its 100% All Natural, Raised Without Antibiotics chicken with a $70 million advertising and promotion campaign. (See the October 2007 issue of WATT PoultryUSA by visiting www.WATTPoultry.com/TysonNatural.aspx). On November 6, 2007, the USDA notified Tyson Foods that it was revoking the previously approved "Raised Without Antibiotics" labels for the Tyson brand of chicken because of the company's use of ionophores. The agency stated that it had made a mistake in giving label approval in the first place and that it had always considered ionophores, which are used to control coccidiosis, to be antibiotics. According to the TLC, some poultry companies received approval from USDA for labels bearing the "Raised Without Antibiotics" claim with ionophore usage, while other companies using the same practices were denied approval on the grounds of their ionophore usage.In December, the USDA approved a new label for Tyson's "Raised Without Antibiotics" products, and the label now states, "Chickens Raised Without Antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans." Ionophores are not used to treat any human illnesses.

TLC members were not pleased with the USDA's approval of Tyson's new label. "We are troubled by the USDA's lack of clarity and consistency regarding both the ‘100% All Natural' and ‘Raised Without Antibiotics' claims," said Jim Perdue, chairman, Perdue Farms. "This matter is far too important for the USDA to explore without input from all interested parties. Consumers make important purchase decisions for themselves and their families based on the information they read on the label. The USDA must be guided by that trust, and should immediately stop what has become an erosion of confidence in the accurate labeling of food products."

In late January, Sanderson Farms, Foster Farms and Perdue Farms unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order in federal court to prohibit Tyson from continuing its "Raised Without Antibiotics" marketing program. The judge denied the motion and noted that Tyson was working cooperatively with the USDA and was making a transition to the new labeling in an "orderly fashion."

"The court's decision to reject our competitors' request strengthens our conviction we have acted properly in the way we've handled our marketing program," said Dave Hogberg, senior vice president of Consumer Products for Tyson Foods. "The decision also confirms our competitors have not demonstrated they have suffered any irreparable harm from our advertising, which was properly created and placed under our original USDA label approval."