WEST LINN, Ore. -- When Joe Brandl, manager of meat and seafood for West Linn Thriftway's Portland, Ore., unit, placed his Thanksgiving Day turkey orders last month, he practically tripled the number of "natural" turkeys ordered from the previous year's.
"The market for natural meat seems to grow every year," said Brandl, adding that his customers are becoming "more aware" of such products and are "always asking about them."
Brandl also carries two small, year-round "natural" lines -- a poultry line and a beef line, each of which includes six cuts and represents about 5% of its category's offerings.
Brandl's experience is familiar to other retailers, who said meat and poultry labeled "natural" have become stronger players in their respective cases, as better-educated consumers seek alternatives to traditionally farmed and processed cuts.
The number of suppliers likewise has increased, according to Brandl, who said at least four companies approached him with natural turkeys; he remembers one from last year.
As simple as the word "natural" may seem, however, what many consumers -- and retailers -- do not realize is that it's actually a complicated, and controversial, definition.
Unlike most food groups, which are governed by the Food and Drug Administration, meat and poultry -- along with processed eggs -- are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. According to the FSIS, the definition of a natural product is one "containing no artificial ingredient or added color, and is only minimally processed [any process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product]."
The definition also says the "label must explain the use of the term 'natural' [such as no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed]."
Foods with "natural" labels are popular with Carr-Gottstein Foods, a 25-store chain based in Anchorage, Alaska, a region that is known for its health-conscious population, according to Tammy Jerry, the company's vice president of perishables.
About 1 1/2 years ago, the company -- which has a "very strong" organic health food business and caters to a clientele that "strives to be healthier" -- decided to replace its Angus beef with a natural line of Angus beef by Coleman Beef of Denver.
"We were looking for something that would appeal to health-conscious consumers," said Jerry, who flew with the company's 23 meat department managers to Coleman's Denver headquarters for a three-day visit before deciding to carry the line.
"We knew our meat department managers had to be behind the program for it to be a success, so we felt it was important for them to visit Coleman's and see for themselves," she said.
During the three-day visit, Jerry and the meat managers toured the company's farms and other facilities, including a testing laboratory and a slaughtering plant, where they had to don white coats, plastic caps and goggles, said Jerry.
By the end of the first day, the meat managers had decided to back the program 100%, according to Jerry, who said the trip was "the best thing we've ever done."
The Coleman's Beef labels include the following features under the word "natural" -- "no antibiotics...ever," "no growth-promoting hormones...ever," "environmentally focused" and "healthy animal practices."
In markets where demand is strong, retailers have been anxious to add more items to their case mixes. While more natural products have arived on the market, it has been difficult to take the business to the next level because of a government ban on the use of the word "organic" on meat and poultry labels.
The FSIS, unlike the FDA, has remained steadfast in its refusal to allow the use of the word "organic" on labels of the food groups it regulates until national standards for all food groups are established under the National Organic Program, which was proposed under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
Although the first draft of the program regulations was submitted for public comment last December, public response was overwhelming -- more than 270,000, possibly the most ever received for a proposed regulation, according to some estimates. Based on those comments, a second draft is being drawn up, which will then be submitted for additional public comment toward the end of the year. Then the final regulations will be drawn up.
In the meantime, some industry players said they felt the organic meat and poultry industry was getting the short end of the stick when it tries to market its wares. In other words, the "natural" Brandl ordered for Thanksgiving and the "natural" lines of poultry and meat he carries all theoretically could be organic, produced under much stricter standards than those that govern the term "natural" as it is defined by the FSIS.
Products that are truly organically produced are likely to carry a retail price about 20% to 30% higher than comparable "natural" items, according to George Siemon, chief executive officer of Organic Valley of La Farge, Wis., an organic cooperative that is responding to the FSIS' refusal to allow interim organic labeling with a national public awareness campaign called "Label Meat Organic."
The problem, said Siemon, is that "without the word 'organic,' a product gets lost in the midst of all the other meat."
Organic meats, however, meet more stringent standards. For example, meat produced by Organic Valley carries a label that bears the "natural" designation, but also notes the meat is produced without hormones or antibiotics, from animals that eat feed grown without pesticides and no rendered animal by-products.
These descriptive phrases, added to the label, provide one way for savvy retailers and consumers to help identify organic products, according to Siemon.
Although Siemon said most "natural" labels used on meat and poultry are accurate, he added they can be misleading to consumers and to retailers.
"A common claim on 'natural' labels is that the product was grown without subtherapeutic antibiotics, which doesn't mean that no antibiotics were used," he said. "The consumer, however, sees 'no' and 'antibiotics,' and jumps to the conclusion that no antibiotics were used."
Siemon said he has visited retailers who believe they're carrying organic meat and poultry -- but they're not.
Some retailers, like Al Kingstreiter, meat department manager for V. Richard's, a one-store independent in Brookfield, Wis., admitted the term organic could be confusing.
"I'm not sure what the exact definition of an organic meat or poultry product is," said Kingstreiter, adding customer inquiries about such products are growing, but have not yet reached a level where he feels compelled to add such products to his mix.
"We always listen to our customers," said Kingstreiter. "In the end, they're the ones who decide what we carry."
In the meantime, V. Richard's, like many retailers, is responding to customer demands by offering natural products.
V. Richard's carries Piedmontese beef, a line that is packaged under natural labels stating that no artificial ingredients, antibiotics or hormones have been used. The retailer also carries a line of natural poultry with labels that say it contains "no artificial ingredients" and "no preservatives."
Not all companies enjoy traveling to their suppliers' farms to examine the facilities. As a result, most retailers contacted by SN said they ask their suppliers to provide accurate data on the composition of their products.
"Although we're often taking the supplier's word for something, I've found the [company representatives] to be very knowledgeable and to provide a lot of informative, written materials," said Kingstreiter.
Brandl of West Linn Thriftway admitted he has never physically visited his supplier's farms, but said the integrity of the product lines is documented through a system of checks and balances.
"A group of veterinarians oversees the beef operation," he said, adding that everything also meets USDA inspection standards.