What does “100% Natural” mean?

If you are anything like our family, you struggle constantly with the cost of organic food. You know you should do it, but sometimes you just can’t afford it. It is usually possible to find organic fruits and vegetables on sale when they are in season. Or you can join different local co-ops for produce. But when it comes to organic meat, it is way out of my price range, and when it comes down to choosing therapy and supplements versus organic meat. Well, quite simply, the meat loses.

So then comes the challenge of finding what is the next best. And you see all the labels in their glory “Pilgrim’s Pride 100% Natural Chickens” or Sanderson Farms declares its hormone-free chicken meat as “all-natural” and “100 Percent Chicken. Naturally.” Clever billboards declare, “Our ingredient list: chicken.”

So what does this word natural mean?

Well it just happens that Pilgrim’s Pride and Sanderson Farms (this relates to almost any large grocery store brand; I have picked on these two for what I consider sneaky labeling) are very large, conventionally managed poultry producers and do not make any alternative practice claims for their “natural” products.

In fact, “natural” meat producers may regularly use antibiotics and still market their meat as “natural.” And I am not talking about the limited use for the chicken that got sick, but across-the-board use in all chickens to prevent bacteria. But antibiotics are not the only problem in the poultry industry. In my opinion the widespread use of roxarsone (an organic arsenic compound) in poultry feed is much more alarming.

According to “Food for Chickens, Poison for Man” on Scienceline, over 70% of all broiler chickens grown in the U.S. are fed roxarsone. Roxarsone prevents the growth of microscopic intestinal parasites called coccidia that frequently infect livestock, and it provides the added bonus of better growth – i.e., bigger chickens.

Roxarsone doesn’t disappear once chickens eat it. Some is distributed throughout the animal’s tissues, including the breasts, thighs and legsmeat that is later eaten by consumers. The rest is excreted unchanged in poultry waste. Ninety percent of this manure is later converted into fertilizer that can contaminate crops, lakes, rivers, and eventually drinking water.

Any increase in human levels of arsenic exposure is of great concern: The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates drinking water, considers arsenic a Class A carcinogen, meaning that data have definitively shown it to cause cancer. To read the full article visit http://scienceline.org/2006/09/20/env-wenner-arsenic/

When I contacted Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride about their natural chicken, asking specifically about antibiotic use and arsenic in the feed, they both responded that they proudly don’t use any hormones and their “natural” poultry is minimally processed.

Well, that is just great since Federal Regulations do not permit the use of hormones in poultry. So lets look at the other proud claim of minimal processing. Common sense would tell me that “minimal processing” infers you don’t do anything or add anything to the product before it is packaged for sale.

As far as I can tell, Sanderson Farms makes good on that claim; their packaging is poultry and up to 10% retained water. But to my confusion, Pilgrim’s Pride has injected their “minimally processed” birds with chicken broth solution. Someone please explain to me what exactly qualifies as minimal processing.

So what are you to do?

Find local sources that you feel comfortable with if possible. One to check out is www.paidom.com. I’ll admit they are a bit pricey, but if you can fit them into your budget, you won’t find comparable quality for the price anywhere. They carry grass-fed beef, and true range chickens that actually eat bugs like they are supposed to. This is in contrast to all grocery brand chicken, organic or otherwise, that are given feed that is primarily soy. They make deliveries to different areas of the state every other month. Unfortunately the chickens are seasonal and on their last delivery to Houston they ran out. They will have them again in May, but it is worth checking out the website right now just for the grass-fed beef (and lamb and pork).

For grocery store brands, check with companies about their practices. I actually found a brand called Coleman Meats that sells organic and natural meats in Wal-Mart. They were a reasonable price, so I called the company. They never use hormones, antibiotics, or add arsenic to the feed, and are truly minimally processed. So guess what happened? A few weeks later their product was gone from the meat case. When I asked the meat manager where it had gone. He replied “nobody would buy the Natural Coleman Whole Chickens at $1.50 a pound when the “100% Natural” Pilgrim’s Pride Chickens sitting next to it were 89 cents a pound.

I guess the moral of this article is to find out exactly what natural means on your particular food label, because MSG, arsenic, and even mercury are all “100% natural.”

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