Currently there is no legal definition of “natural” as it relates to food products, unlike the explicit organic standards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides loose guidelines about labeling food products “natural.” As long as the food contains “no artificial ingredients or added color and are no more than minimally processed,” it may be considered natural. However, this leaves much room for interpretation. For example, based on this definition, livestock animals that are given antibiotics made from natural sources (such as fungi) can be called “natural meats.”
For the most part, the American natural beef industry defines itself and sets standards above and beyond the USDA definition. Their accepted protocol indicates that their animals are raised without any antibiotics (ever), added growth hormones (ever), or animal byproducts in its feed (ever). Natural beef is typically corn or grain finished, meaning they are fed a vegetarian diet for most of their lives and then transitioned to corn and grain products to enhance marbling (fat distributed throughout muscle) of the meat for a buttery flavor.
In general, the industry claims that animals sold as natural are raised in a free roaming setting for most of their lives. They are typically produced in small family ranch environments and are treated in a humane manner from birth to slaughter. Throughout their lives, animals are provided with plenty of clean water and food in a manner that does not require undue competition. Natural beef ranchers also claim to follow the American Humane Association’s Welfare Standards or Free-Farming Standards.
In general, organic and natural farms tend to be smaller in size than industrial factory farms. This significantly reduces the amount of animal waste produced that can potentially pollute the nearby waterways.
Overall, natural meat products do not pose the same degree of public health risk as industrially raised meat products. Because the animals receive absolutely no antibiotics, hormones or other unnatural substances, they do not pose serious risks to human health like antibiotic resistance (1). In addition, because they are primarily fed a vegetarian diet, they are unlikely to be a source of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) also known as “mad cow” disease.
1. Clancy K. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating. Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge MA, 2006. Accessed March 14, 2007.