Hormel has won a significant victory in a lawsuit that alleged the company was misleading consumers in its use of the word "natural" to advertise certain products.
The Superior Court of the District of Columbia — a jurisdiction with stringent consumer-protection laws — dismissed a lawsuit earlier this week from the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). The court held that as long as manufacturer labels are approved by the USDA, the advertising can use the "natural" claims.
"If a producer can accurately use a term in a label," the court wrote, "the producer should be able to use the same term in its advertising."
Hormel said in its most recent quarterly filing that its "Natural Choice" line of meats "showed excellent growth." But in a 600-plus-page court filing in January, in which Hormel responded to the ALDF lawsuit, the company disclosed how it makes some of its Natural Choice products, as well as its perception of what consumers think they are buying.
In statements disclosed in the filing, a company executive said the same pigs it uses to make its famous Spam brand meat product are also used in Natural Choice pork products. Those pigs are often given antibiotics and are rarely allowed outdoors.
The ALDF plans to appeal the ruling, issued Monday. David Muraskin, a food project attorney at Public Justice and lead lawyer for group, calls Hormel's Natural Choice marketing "a massive attempt to manipulate and dupe the consumer."
American shoppers are reaching for healthier, more environmentally and animal-friendly meat products, with 39 percent saying "all-natural" is the most important claim when purchasing red meat, according to a recent survey by Mintel. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that when it comes to meat and poultry, the term "natural" means only that the product has no artificial ingredients and has been minimally processed.
It doesn't mean anything when it comes to antibiotics, hormones or preservatives.
Companies such as Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride and Hormel have been snapping up smaller, progressive competitors in the burgeoning organic food space, seeking to capitalize on changing consumer tastes. At the same time, however, some of the major meat companies have been offering their own products as "natural," replete with labels featuring blue skies and green fields.
"Our position has always been that Hormel Natural Choice products are produced, labeled and marketed in conformance with all applicable laws and regulations," Hormel said in a statement.
Most animals raised for meat in the U.S. spend their lives in conventional indoor agricultural systems, routinely receiving antibiotics and sometimes growth promoters. While this isn't what most consumers likely envision as "natural," it's a system that allows them to eat as much beef, pork, turkey and chicken as they want — no matter where they live or the time of year.
Other major Minnesota food companies, including Cargill and General Mills, have faced litigation over similar claims.