Should Spam be considered a “natural” food?

Hormel won a lawsuit over its line of “natural choice” products, which animal advocates argue is deceptive.

On Monday, Hormel Foods, one of the world’s largest meatpackers, won a three-year-old lawsuit against them in the Superior Court of Washington, D.C., which alleged that the food giant had deceived consumers by marketing a line of products as “the natural choice.” Companies are routinely sued over the alleged misuse of that word. But this case is a bit different, because of a pretty spicy revelation: that the same pigs are used both for Hormel’s “natural choice” products—and for Spam.

In its lawsuit, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal rights organization, said that Hormel had violated a local consumer protections act with an advertising campaign for its Natural Choice line of products. The group said the ads deliberately misled customers into believing the products came from animals that were humanely raised and slaughtered, without the use of hormones or antibiotics. The complaint also noted that ads misled consumers to believe the products don’t contain preservatives or nitrates.

“There is nothing natural, clean, honest, simple, or wholesome about how Hormel produces Natural Choice,” the plaintiffs asserted. “Hormel’s operations, including those used for its Natural Choice Products, are quintessential examples of industrial animal agriculture.”

The judge ended up tossing that complaint, finding that ALDF didn’t really have a stake in the fight. There was no evidence that the nonprofit’s mission, operations or budgets had been impacted by the ad campaign, Meatingplace reports (registration required). Plus, the judge found, the local advertising law, under which the complaint was brought, is preempted by federal law—that is, the laws that allow the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sign off on some product labels.

Most consumers believe natural products were raised using “sustainable” farming techniques on “independent” family farms. But those are just words.
We’ve written in the past about how the term “natural” is fairly toothless. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees 80 percent of the country’s food supply, uses a definition that isn’t legally enforced. Meanwhile, USDA—which regulates meat and dairy—goes by an incredibly loose definition. According to that agency, a natural product designation only indicates that a product doesn’t contain an artificial ingredient, or added color, and is only “minimally processed.” Antibiotics, hormones and preservatives are OK.

In court documents discovered by Bloomberg, a Hormel executive said the same pigs it uses to make ultra-processed Spam are also the same pigs used in Natural Choice pork. There is no manner “in which the pigs raised for Hormel Natural Choice products” are different from those in Spam, or lunch meat, or bacon, the company’s director of procurement said in a deposition. So what does that mean? Only that a “fairly small percent” of those pigs—again, the same pigs that got carved up to become Natural Choice—went outside. Some of them also received antibiotics and a “muscle drug” called ractopamine.

An interesting feature of “natural” labeling lawsuits is that the plaintiffs will often cite consumer perception and surveys about what the term means. The goal is to make the case that consumers aren’t thinking of official food labeling laws when they grocery shop, and rather that they make common-sense assumptions on the meaning of descriptors. (In this reading, Spam certainly would not be considered natural, even if it technically is.)

They might be right. In the Hormel case, plaintiffs cited Consumer Reports research showing that most consumers believe natural products were raised using “sustainable” farming techniques on “independent” family farms. There is clearly a disconnect.

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.