Urvashi Rangan at Meat Labels: Natural No More – Urvashi Rangan

Organization
Change Food

We at Consumer Reports do lots of different things. We’re lots of different scientists. And one of the most fun things we get to do is deal with other scientists in our organization. And survey is actually loaded with scientists. And we run really interesting national polls. We can kind of take the pulse on anything at any given time. And this year we spent a lot of time asking people about labels. And what they thought of labels. What they thought they meant. What they thought they should mean. To kind of basically do some analysis of our own to see how much people are being misled in the marketplace. And the label that rises to the top almost all the time is natural. And people think natural means something, and it doesn’t.

So I’m going to take you through sort of our story of how we learnt that through the survey work we did. So we kind of have been calling this campaign, ‘America’s Most Wanted Food Labels’. We did a conference in September in San Francisco. The entire conference is posted online on our website. So if you’re interested after this, you can take a look at it.

Here’s some really interesting news about what people want from their food, before we dive into the natural label, is that consumers want more. These response rates that you see, anywhere from 69% of consumers want to avoid artificial ingredients. All the way up to 92% wanting to support local farmers. That’s a really interesting finding for us. You can see we have an overwhelming majority response to a lot of better food production practices. This is what consumers nationally want. And this is a nationally representative poll. It’s not just people who buy organic food or sustainable food. It’s really all consumers everywhere. And those are overwhelming numbers for us from a survey. This is the foundation I think by which we need to sort of fight this fight on the natural label. People want more. They’re demanding more. They’re more sophisticated about our food. And I think a lot of you in the room already share these ideals. But the nation is catching up.

When it comes to natural and asking people what they thought natural meant. You can see that lots of people, well over 60% think that natural means no antibiotics. No GMOs in animal feed, we were really surprised by that. Almost two-thirds of people think that. No artificial growth hormones. But we know none of those things are true except for the first one. The first one, you can’t add an artificial ingredient to a cut of meat itself. That is the only real law on the books when it comes to the natural label and what it has to mean. It doesn’t have to do with how the animal was raised or what it ate. And you can actually pump chicken up with saltwater, that’s natural, and you can call it natural. So lots of problems with natural labeling, even where there are some regulations or some language guidance in place. We also asked people what they thought the label should mean.

And you can see again, overwhelming majority of people think that natural ought to mean all of these things. What we sort of derive from this is if natural doesn’t mean any of those things, and yet a majority of people think it does. Those people are being misled in the marketplace. And that’s a serious issue. And that’s the argument we take to the government bodies, to tell them that this is empirical evidence to show that people are being misled in the marketplace. People expect the same standards however, from natural and organic.

So one question might be, why not define natural? Why don’t we start defining it? And we asked ourselves that question five or six years ago when we working with the USDN, a lot of meat marketing claims. Why? You know when you start to think about how you would define natural and how it would comport with consumer expectations. We went through that painful process with organic. And it took 12 years between the law and passing the regulations and getting it right. I don’t know if anyone here remembers the fight on GMOs with organic, with sewage sludge, with the radiation. We don’t need to fight those fights all over again. We’ve done it. We’ve got something. And while it doesn’t meet all consumer expectations, there’s a framework in place. There’s something to focus on. So that’s why we think, don’t bother defining it. Don’t waste our taxpayer dollars. Just make organic, what natural is supposed to be, and that’s fine. And that’s a simplistic way of describing it. I think we’re going to hear from Andrew today, who’s from Animal Welfare Approved.

And we know there’s lots of interesting certification programs out there. Those are the things that are coming much closer to meeting consumer expectations. The sad thing is that more people look for the natural label than the organic label. More people think the natural label means something more than organic. And we’re tired of that fact. And we’ve known that for a long time. It continues to be a problem. And that’s another driving force behind this campaign, is just to stop this and to kill this diagram and really have this not be true anymore. So that’s a mission for us at Consumer Reports.

We also rate a lot of labels. And when it comes to meat production practices, we’re looking at all these different attributes. And when we rate labels like Andrew’s, we’re looking to see how those labels stack up against these attributes. And yet when it comes to natural, it’s not inspected. And frankly, there’s not any of these things. It’s none of these things. And yet that’s exactly when we think about better meat production practices, natural doesn’t even come close to meeting any of those. So this is what we’ve been doing so far. We’re watchdogging the marketplace. We’re rating labels. We’re trying to educate people on which labels mean something and which ones don’t. But we need to be able to do more. We need to be able to expose the loopholes that exist.

And I think after all the panel finishes today, we’re here to discuss. And hear from you ideas in which we can sort of move this campaign forward. Get more sort of anchoring in the marketplace, and really for the goal of killing this label altogether. Thanks a lot.

Organizations

Change Food
  • Urvashi Rangan

    Director, Consumer Safety and Sustainability Consumers Union

    Dr. Urvashi Rangan is responsible for managing risk analysis, policy assessments, label evaluations and consumer advice for tests, reports, and related advocacy work. Read More

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