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Department of Agriculture to re-examine `natural' label

WASHINGTON—The Minnesota-based maker of Spam wants to freshen up the word "natural" on meat and poultry labels.

At the very least, Hormel Foods Corp. is reheating a controversy. The company wants tighter, more uniform labeling rules, and suggested that some firms may "manipulate exceptions" to the current requirements.

Other companies could oppose stricter guidelines. Potentially, producers, processors and consumers may all have to adjust to new meanings for a seemingly simple word.

"We certainly agree there needs to be more clarity when it comes to use of the word `natural,'" said Bill Mattos, president of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation. "The rules may need to be updated; they certainly don't need to be loosened."

On Tuesday, the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced it would begin reconsidering the rules governing use of the word "natural." The current rules were set in 1982, prompting Hormel and Agriculture Department officials to wonder whether they needed updating in light of new technology.

"In recent years, the longstanding policy on `natural' has been challenged by advances in food processing and in packaging methods," the Agriculture Department noted.

Chlorine, for instance, is now used in some poultry chillers. Antimicrobial agents unknown during Ronald Reagan's presidency are now commonplace. Carcasses are steam pasteurized.

Sometimes, big companies want to loosen rules. Based in Austin, Minn., Hormel is certainly big, with annual sales exceeding $5.8 billion and a nationwide reach that includes facilities in Wichita, Kan., and Stockton, Calif. In April, Hormel purchased the Valley Fresh plant in the California Central Valley city of Turlock.

In this case, though, the big company suggested in its petition the "difficulty in maintaining a level playing field" as some processors try out the "natural" label on specially processed foods.

For instance, the Agriculture Department now allows the "natural" label to be used on products treated with sodium lactate. The chemical helps preserve food, but the Agriculture Department acknowledged Tuesday that there is "significant disagreement" about whether it fits the term natural.

Mattos cited, as well, the marketing of so-called "enhanced poultry," which is soaked in or injected with a saline solution. The salt water tenderizes and flavors the meat, but also disturbs those who worry about misleading consumers.

"A natural product to us is not something that's pumped up with water and salt," Mattos said.

At the same time, as noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Hormel has itself been trying to move into new markets with its "Natural Choice" brands of deli meats. Instead of preservatives, the meats are treated with high-pressure pasteurization. It's one of the new technologies that the Agriculture Department might now choose to deem generally acceptable for natural-labeled products.

"'Natural' is certainly being used more and more," noted Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute. "It's a growing category."

American Meat Institute officials, representing 280 packer-processors nationwide, were also scrambling Tuesday to find out more about the labeling developments. The proposal seemed to catch some by surprise.

Hormel officials couldn't be reached to comment Tuesday.

Noting the "types of food processing methods that are commonplace today, as opposed to 24 years ago," the Agriculture Department asks whether it still makes sense that a product labeled as natural be "not more than minimally processed."

Some of this is human psychology. Agriculture Department officials noted Tuesday, for instance, that they need better information about what consumers think terms like "natural," "minimal processing" and "artificial and synthetic" mean. This could shape what practices officials allow for each term.

Federal officials have convened a Dec. 12 public hearing at Agriculture Department headquarters in Washington. That four-hour hearing will just be the appetizer. Next, the Agriculture Department will start formally rewriting the rules.

A taste of the coming debate arose in August 2005, when officials ruled that sodium lactate, sugar and certain flavor extracts could all be compatible with a natural label. Hotly contested over the past year, that earlier decision will now be reconsidered.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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