- The D.C. Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund that alleged "natural" claims on Hormel’s packaging were misleading customers. The court found if the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the use of "natural" on labels that the manufacturer should be allowed to use that same terminology in advertising, Bloomberg reported.
- While Hormel won the case, court documents revealed the meat producer is peddling natural products that might not be considered all that natural. A company executive said in statements disclosed in the filing that the same pigs — which are often administered antibiotics and not given access to outdoors — are used to make Spam and Natural Choice pork products.
- The ALDF said it intends to appeal the ruling. "It’s a massive attempt to manipulate and dupe the consumer to purchase something they have no intention to purchase," David Muraskin, the lead lawyer for ALDF, said in a statement cited by AdAge.
The fine line between legal and ethical has come into question in the meat industry over the term "natural." Already, natural claims have caused headaches for consumers, marketers and producers alike with the FDA previously saying "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."
The USDA said on its website that a "natural" product label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term. This case upheld that definition. There have been requests for the FDA to more formally define the term. But in the interim, a trend insight report from flavor manufacturer FONA International has suggested that to avoid confusion, food manufacturers shouldn't use the word in marketing.
But Hormel did use "natural" on its products, and that led to a lawsuit. While the company won the court case, documents also revealed much of the ongoing controversy facing the word. With almost no difference between the animals used in Spam product and their all-natural cold cuts, there were even internal questions about the practice.
In the court documents, emails were uncovered that noted executives acknowledging that consumers equate "natural" with raised without preservatives, according to Bloomberg. Still, the court ruling found that if the USDA allows producers to use the term in the labeling, they can also use it in their advertising.
Consumers, however, might not agree. Companies such as General Mills have been sued for misusing all-natural claims on Nature Valley and they ended up dropping the terminology. Although not all companies have reconsidered how they refer to their products, FONA found that new product launches making "all-natural claims" have fallen by 51% during the past five years, reflecting a growing level of consumer skepticism.
Consumers are increasingly reading labels to determine if "natural" fits their definition, and many manufacturers are shifting toward more specific terms like "preservative-free" and "hormone-free." However, "natural" products still hold a lot of weight.
Consumers who are less familiar with the vagueness of the term are willing to pay for the health halo. A 2017 study from Arizona State University found that beef consumers who are unfamiliar with the USDA's definition of "natural" were willing to pay $1.26 more per pound for meat with that label. This lucrative association could make it hard for Hormel to drop the "natural" label, especially now that it has won the court case.
Hormel does have a saving grace through some of the brands it has acquired in recent years. Purchases of Columbus Manufacturing, Applegate, Justin's and Muscle Milk show the company is looking to dive deep into in fast-growing categories such as natural and organic meats and nut butter snacks.
This ruling is being appealed, and it may even jumpstart regulators into considering a more formal definition. That definition, though, may fall in line with the court ruling since it was based on the government's current labeling standards.