Natural Chicken

When is a “natural chicken” not a natural chicken, and what does that mean, anyway?

Here’s the story, from Food Safety News: The Truth Behind ‘Natural’ Chicken

A disagreement among poultry producers about whether chicken injected with salt, water, and other ingredients can be promoted as “natural” has prompted federal officials to consider changing labeling guidelines.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had maintained that if chicken wasn’t flavored artificially or preserved with chemicals, it could carry the word “natural” on the package; however, after some producers, politicians, and health advocates noted that about one-third of chicken sold in the U.S. was injected with additives that could represent up to 15 percent of the meat’s weight, doubling or tripling its sodium content, the agency agreed to take another look at its policy….

Mostly what this story illustrates is the uselessness of the term “natural” as a descriptive or evaluative term. The word “natural,” as has often been pointed out, cannot plausibly be taken as even a rough synonym for “good” or “healthy”, as is sometimes thought. After all, arsenic is natural, as is cancer. But nor is it even a clear descriptive term. Some people may take “natural” to imply “found in nature, unmodified by humans.” But then chickens themselves don’t count, since the various breeds of chicken (all members of the species Gallus gallus domesticus) have been bred and hybridized by humans over the last 10,000 years or so. Others might take “natural” to mean “raised & packaged in they usual way, the way I picture when I close my eyes and think of chickens.” And most of us don’t picture salt water etc being injected into chickens as part of the “normal” process. But then the meaning of word “natural” (or just about any other single-word descriptor you choose) is effectively relative to what individuals have in mind, which makes it pretty useless as a food label.

Now, of course, clear regulations can help define words like “natural.” But two problems remain. One is the proliferation of adjectives that stand in need of regulatory standardization: “natural,” “all-natural,” “free-range,” “organic,” “farm-raised,” etc etc., limited only by the ingenuity of marketers (who are always going to be a step ahead of regulators). The second problem is that regulatory definitions aren’t necessarily going to line up well with consumer expectations. And if the regulatory definition of “natural” is not the same as what consumers (all of them? most of them? any of them?) take that word to mean, then the label remains (or maybe becomes!) misleading.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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