An animal rights group has sued Hormel Foods for using "natural" and other terms it believes are misleading in a line of lunch meats and bacon called "Natural Choice."
The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Superior Court of the District of Columbia, claiming the Austin-based company is taking advantage of misconceptions among consumers about what "natural" means.
"The lawsuit is aimed at the misleading picture that Hormel is projecting through its advertising campaign," said Kelsey Eberly, staff attorney for the defense fund, which is based in Cotati, Calif. "They are painting this picture of a family farm where animals go to pasture and aren't given antibiotic drugs."
It said the Hormel products come from animals "raised on industrial, pharmaceutical-dependent factory farms."
The suit is the latest legal battle in a debate between consumer groups and foodmakers over the portrayal of food, ingredients and production methods.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have largely remained mum on the controversy, even as foods labeled natural or organic have proliferated over the past decade.
Hormel said in a statement it is "confident that this lawsuit is without merit" and that the company "stand[s] behind Hormel Natural Choice products 100 percent." The company also noted that all of its Natural Choice products were produced, labeled and marketed within the laws and regulations.
"The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has specifically reviewed and approved the labels for Hormel Natural Choice branded products, including scrutinizing and approving the 'natural' and 'preservative'-related language," the company said.
While the "USDA organic" label offers consumers assurance that at least 95 percent of a product's ingredients have been government certified, "natural foods" could essentially mean anything.
About 60 percent of U.S. consumers believe the natural label on meat and poultry means that no artificial ingredients or colors were added, no artificial growth hormones were used, no genetically-modified organisms or artificial ingredients were in the animals' feed, and no antibiotics or other drugs were used, according to a Consumer Reports survey in December.
But the FDA is considering regulating how food companies use "natural" after receiving three citizen petitions and federal court cases where entities have requested that the word be defined.
In November, the agency solicited public comment on what consumers and companies believe the phrase means and what parameters they would like to see applied to its use.
It is currently reviewing thousands of submitted comments from citizens and corporations.
The FDA said it is working with the USDA "to also examine the use of the term 'natural' in meat, poultry, and egg products, and are considering areas for coordination between FDA and USDA."
Other major Minnesota food companies have faced litigation over similar claims. Cargill has been sued several times and General Mills has been sued at least five times, including recent episodes involving its labeling of Nature Valley granola bars and Fruit Roll-Up snacks.