I posted earlier on the difference between the “natural” and “organic” labels on food. In short, “organic” food must live up to stringent standards imposed by law (and certified by an independent inspector), while “natural” can mean just about anything–or nothing.
When it comes to meat, the story is slightly different. Organic meat must still live up to strict government standards: organic growers still can’t use antibiotics (with certain limitations) or growth hormones, and must allow their livestock “access to pasture” and feed them exclusively organic feed. And organic growers must have an independent inspector attest that these standards are being met.
But this time, there are certain standards for “natural” products as well. “Natural” meat must be minimally processed (for instance, it can’t be pre-cooked); and it can’t have artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. These standards are very loose compared to “organic” meat standards but are certainly more restrictive than for “natural” non-meat products.
And there is one further requirement for “natural” meats: meat producers have to tell us what they mean by “natural.” (This again is a requirement only for “natural” meat and not for other “natural” products.) A meat label may indicate, for example, “no growth hormones, access to pasture, and no antibiotics.” And if enough adjectives are included, the “natural” meat may start looking a lot like “organic” meat.
But even meat products for which “natural” is defined to include all sorts of claims, two factors still differentiate the “organic” from the “natural.”
First, if a meant product is labeled “natural,” it almost certainly fails to meet all of the requirements of “organic” meat. The “organic” requirements demand a great deal of effort and expense, and few producers will want to incur this effort and expense without reaping the main benefit: using the “organic” label. Most often, “natural” meat fails to satisfy the requirement that the livestock be fed only organic feed. Organic feed is expensive, and many producers would rather just feed their livestock conventional feed and just use the vague word “natural” instead.
Second, “organic” meats have had an independent, government-certified inspector come by and attest that all “organic” requirements have been met. “Natural” meats, even those that include an extensive list of claims (e.g., no antibiotics, no growth hormones, free range), have had no one certify that its claims are true. Obviously, these producers would get in trouble with the government if anyone ever found out that they were not true. But their products never been tested, and they know that they never will be. So you can’t have the same sort of certainty that what they’re saying is true. And as recent food safety lapses suggest, producers who aren’t inspected are under a great temptation to cut corners, and at least sometimes give into that temptation.
Do you look for organic meat when you shop?