Photo by Sanderson Farms, graphic by NFE
That might sound obvious. But in the absence of strong regulations, a raft of lawsuits are trying to change the fact that "all-natural" can mean, well, almost anything.

Farm Health Ideas Issues Policy Systems

Last week, a federal judge in California denied poultry producer Sanderson Farms’s request to dismiss a lawsuit accusing the company of using false and misleading advertising to market its line of “100% natural” chicken products—a tagline that appears on a range of offerings from wings and drumsticks to thighs and whole birds, as well as on the company’s website, print ads, billboards, and TV commercials. The order from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg is the latest salvo in a courtroom battle that’s been dragging on almost 18 months.

“Natural” probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Unlike other lawsuits, which have alleged that products can’t be “natural” if they contain certain ingredients or preservatives, or are processed a certain way, this one zeroes in on Sanderson’s production claims. The plaintiffs, which include the Berkeley, California-based consumer group Friends of the Earth, allege that Sanderson, the country’s third largest poultry producer, can’t call its chicken “natural” because of its agricultural practices—from its stance towards animal welfare to its use of antibiotics. The case boils down to a semantic argument: that the popular understanding of the term “natural” can’t possibly be reconciled with the reality of intensive chicken production.

According to a 2015 survey of over a thousand American eaters conducted by Consumer Reports, most of us believe the term “natural” means a few things when applied to meat and poultry: That the animal it came from was raised outdoors; was produced without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or other synthetic drugs; and was brought to market with the addition of artificial or GMO ingredients.

“Natural” probably doesn’t mean what you think it means, though—the term isn’t strictly defined or regulated by the government agencies that oversee our food. That gap in understanding is central to the lawsuit, which claims “100% natural,” as used by Sanderson, plays more to widespread misunderstandings than to the technical details of the government standard. (For more on what “natural” and other common claims mean when applied to meat, see The New Food Economy’s handy guide.)

As outlined in the suit, one major issue is animal welfare, and how consumers perceive a natural chicken to be raised. In their complaint, the plaintiffs point out that at least half of consumers believe natural chickens roam outdoors. Sanderson, however, raises chickens in confined houses with no access to the outside world, a practice that’s standard in the industry. That alone, the judge found, was sufficient to plead that the poultry company had deceived customers. Sanderson, for its part, said it doesn’t depict chickens going outdoors in its advertisements, and therefore couldn’t be misleading consumers.

“Sanderson likely misleads consumers into thinking the key concern is whether antibiotics residues remain on the product.”
The second, and more complicated, issue is about antibiotics. Last year, the plaintiffs in the suit made headlines after they unearthed testing records that revealed the company’s chicken tested positive for residues of drugs like ketamine, and powerful antibiotics like chloramphenicol, which can trigger a deadly form of anemia. The presence of the club drug was a surprise; the point of the data was to show that Sanderson had deceived consumers when it proclaimed, on its website, that “there’s only chicken in our chicken,” and, on TV, that there were “no antibiotics to worry about here.”

In court documents reviewed by The New Food Economy, Sanderson says, in its defense, that when it uses those phrases, it isn’t saying that it doesn’t use antibiotics. In fact, Sanderson has been vocal about its use of antibiotics, even as the rest of the industry begins to withdraw from the practice over concerns about the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The company pointed to its commercials, where plain-spoken pitchmen explained that all Sanderson “chickens must be cleared of antibiotics before they leave the farm,” while at the same time deriding other companies that advertise their products are “raised without antibiotics.”

Cleared. That word, Sanderson said, should indicate to the consumer that the company is, in fact, using antibiotics, but making sure that they have left the bird’s system before it goes to slaughter and processing. That’s nothing special: Under current rules, meat and poultry products treated with antibiotics must be subject to a “withdrawal period” meant to ensure they contain no residues when they hit the market. (A Consumer Reports study found that doesn’t always happen.) Still, the company says its marketing language is designed not to obscure the fact of its antibiotic use. “If the process was devoid of antibiotics, surely there would be nothing to ‘clear’ before the birds left the farm,” the company said in its motion to dismiss.

The popular understanding of the term “natural” can’t possibly be reconciled with the reality of intensive chicken production.
That reasoning failed to convince the court. In rejecting Sanderson’s motion, the judge found its defense “lacks merit,” and that conflating clearing and raising in commercials does more harm than good. “When Sanderson advertisements mask the difference between Sanderson’s products—which are raised with antibiotics and cleared of the drugs before point of sale—and competitors’ products which never encounter antibiotics, Sanderson likely misleads consumers into thinking the key concern is whether antibiotics residues remain on the product,” he wrote.

In March, I wrote that FDA, under its Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, wants to “modernize” its approach to food labels and packaging claims like “natural,” and that it plans to re-evaluate its stance on the meaning of such terms. But for now, only “natural flavors,” which are extracted from a plant or animal—as opposed to “artificial flavors,” which originate in a lab—have legally binding regulations.

Food manufacturers know this. Research shows that just adding the word “natural” to a product powers $40 billion worth of food sales every year. So while the term tends to attract lawsuits, with plaintiffs bringing dozens of suits challenging labels on products from orange juice to tortilla chips to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, it’s not enough to keep industry from using it. We love to tell ourselves that what we buy is “natural,” basking in the glow of the word’s many positive associations. Until regulations change, food companies will be all too happy to let us believe.

Sam Bloch

Sam Bloch has written about arts, culture, and real estate for publications including The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, and Artnet. His essay about Los Angeles' "shade deserts" will be published by Places Journal this spring. Reach him by email at: samuel.bloch@newfoodeconomy.org

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