It’s only natural, but what does that mean? What does “natural” mean when it appears on a food label? A recent survey shows consumers really don’t know.

Nevertheless, the survey, conducted by Consumer Reports, showed that consumers do want, and are willing to seek out, foods that are natural. Fifty-nine percent of consumers take time to look for the natural label, and those foods created a $40.7 billion market last year, according to Nielsen.

The survey showed that what consumers thought they were getting from “natural” meat and poultry was products from animals not given growth hormones (89 percent) or antibiotics and other drugs (81 percent), and animals whose feed did not contain genetically engineered organisms (85 percent) or artificial ingredients (85 percent).

But the natural label neither promises, nor has any bearing whatever on, any of those factors. According to the USDA (which regulates meat, poultry and egg products), any meat item can be called natural if it contains no artificial ingredients or added color, and it is only minimally processed — meaning that processing did not fundamentally alter the product. Just about all fresh beef meets that definition.

For the FDA, which regulates all other foods, a formal definition for use of the term natural does not exist. In 1993, after giving up on trying to form such a definition, the agency decided to “not restrict the use of ‘natural’ on products. It is a very complex term,” said the FDA’s Ritu Nalubola in a press release from the Institute of Food Technologists. According to the FDA’s own website, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.”

Even in the absence of a definition, the FDA does not object to the term being used if "nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food." But the FDA discourages food manufacturers from using it. “Natural may unjustifiably imply that a food is of superior quality or safety compared to other similar foods,” Nalubola added.

Based on their survey results, which clearly reflect the confusion over “natural” foods on the consumer side, Consumer Reports is joining with digital magazine TakePart in a campaign called “Know your labels, know your food,” calling for a ban on the natural label. Part of the objection, as they describe it, is the fact that “Meat labeled as ‘natural’ can come from animals that were raised with daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs, given artificial growth hormones, fed genetically engineered soy and corn feed and other artificial ingredients and continually confined indoors,” according to the TakePart website.

The Consumer Reports survey did also illuminate some of the other attributes of interest to consumers: An overwhelming majority — 92 percent — want to support local farmers when they purchase food. Eighty-nine percent want to protect the environment from chemicals; 86 percent want fair conditions for workers; 80 percent want good living conditions for animals; and 78 percent want less use of antibiotics in food production.

See the full article and more in the digital edition of the August issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.