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What does it mean for a food to be labeled natural on the package labeling?
That’s at the heart of a lawsuit the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ADLF) brought against food and restaurant conglomerate Hormel in June 2016. The suit contended that Hormel’s Natural Choice products, including turkey, ham, salami and roast beef, misled the public because the meats contain antibiotics, and nitrates, which have been linked to cancer. Hormel said that its products were minimally processed and had no artificial ingredients or preservatives.
On April 8, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, a typically consumer-friendly jurisdiction, dismissed the suit, saying that the Food and Drug Administration’s [FDA] approval of the natural label validated the company’s claim. “[I]f a producer can accurately use a term in a label,” the court wrote, “the producer should be able to use the same term in its advertising.”
“We are disappointed that the judge refused to reach the merits of the case and hold Hormel accountable for misleading consumers about its factory-farmed Natural Choice products, and are assessing our options,” a spokeswoman for the ALDF told Karma Network on April 11.
The case underscores the heated, ongoing debate about food regulations with consumer groups looking to hold companies strictly accountable for their ingredients and labeling, while companies defend their practices. Demand for purer and organic foods has skyrocketed over the past two decades.
In recent years, a number of big-brand food companies, including Hormel, have sought to improve the quality of their products, often through acquisitions. In 2015, Hormel, the 128-year-old, Austin, Minn.-based company, bought Applegate, known for its minimally processed, organic cold cuts, for $775 million. Two years later, it acquired Columbus Manufacturing, a provider of Italian-style salami and deli meats for $850 million.
In a statement provided to Karma Network, Hormel praised the court’s decision, saying that “consumers around the world” trusted its brands.
“We are pleased with the court's decision, upholding USDA's [U.S. Department of Agriculture] assessment and approval of our use of the terms ‘100% Natural’ and ‘No Preservatives’ with Hormel Natural Choice products. Hormel Natural Choice products are produced, labeled and marketed in conformance with all applicable laws and regulation[s].”
ALDF lawyers pointed to a 600-page defense filing in which a Hormel executive said that it used the same pigs for its iconic Spam brand as in its Natural Choice line. Spam contains nitrates and doesn’t carry a label with the word natural.
Critics of the ruling said that while Hormel might be technically in compliance, it had failed to live up to the spirit and intent of labeling regulations.
Nikolas Contis, a senior partner at the New York-based name branding consultancy PS212 told Karma Network that food companies were likely aware of research connecting the word natural to positive consumer response, using the word “hocus pocus” to describe the practice.
“I think all these companies are doing things by the book,” Contis said. “It doesn’t mean it’s ethical because something is okay with the FDA. There’s a tendency to hide behind a loophole.”
Hormel took issue with Contis’s characterization. "We strongly disagree with Mr. Contis's statement and any implication that the advertising or labeling for the Hormel Natural Choice brand is misleading in any way,” the company said Wednesday.
James Peter Rubin is a veteran journalist who has written and edited for CapitalWatch, ThirtyK, TheStreet.com, Forbes and the Economist Group, among other media outlets.