ALDI brand Lunchmates
Never Any! meat products exclude even more ingredients than that required for a natural claim. They also call out farm practices on product labels. 
Minimally processed and void of any artificial ingredients or color additives, this is how the US Dept. of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service defines the term natural as it relates to meat and poultry. It’s a descriptor that up until a few years ago was infrequently used on mainstream packaged fresh meats, cooked sausages and bacon, as well as luncheon-style ready-to-eat meats. Today, it’s the new norm in label claims.

The definition for natural does not include any standards regarding farm practices, which means an animal can receive additional growth hormones or antibiotics. Additionally, there are no regulations on what the animal can or cannot consume.

Minimal processing varies by product, as minimal processing includes traditional processes used to make food edible, to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption (smoking, roasting, freezing, drying and fermenting). Though bologna is a very processed product, it is possible to make minimally processed bologna and label it natural.

Also permitted under the USDA natural standard are physical processes that do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or that only separate whole, intact food into component parts (i.e., grinding meat). All products labeled as natural should include a brief statement explaining what qualifies the product as natural.

Many meats labeled or marketed as natural exclude — and call out on labels — other ingredients or processes perceived as not being the way Mother Nature intended. Such claims include “no antibiotics,” “no hormones” and “uncured.”

Private-label retailer Aldi Inc., Batavia, Illinois, recently introduced a line of fresh and ready-to-eat meat and poultry products under the Never Any! brand. All Never Any! products are made from animals never given any hormones and antibiotics or fed any animal by-products. The products qualify for the natural claim, yet it is not made on the package.

Jeremy Truxal, Oscar Mayer
Jeremy Truxal, brand manager, Oscar Mayer, The Kraft Heinz Co.
MEAT+POULTRY spoke with Jeremy Truxal, brand manager at Oscar Mayer, The Kraft Heinz Co., Chicago, about the growing Oscar Mayer Natural line.

M+P: When did the Oscar Mayer Natural line debut and what are plans for future growth?

Truxal: In 2016, we unveiled the Natural Cold Cut line. Since then we have been expanding the Natural portfolio to include sausage, bacon, and most recently on-the-go Natural Meat & Cheese Plates. We will continue to evolve and grow the line in 2018 as well. We are always listening to our consumers, and when we heard they wanted to have more natural items, we set out to develop a Natural line within our portfolio of products.

M+P: How does the Oscar Mayer brand qualify the product as being natural? How does this vary with other definitions in the marketplace?

Truxal: By including select quality ingredients and removing artificial ingredients, Oscar Mayer Natural products have all the elements that qualify as natural according to USDA guidelines. While we cannot comment on how others classify natural, we do know that consumers can rely on these product improvements to never sacrifice on taste.

M+P: How important is natural to the Oscar Mayer customer? Are there concerns that having a natural line will cannibalize the mainstream Oscar Mayer products?

Truxal: Oscar Mayer set out to create the Natural line as a way to answer the call from consumers who want a quality product that tastes great without having all of the ingredients they don’t want or need. At Oscar Mayer, we are committed to providing a wide selection of products that fit the varying preferences of our consumers, and the Natural line is just another option for consumers to choose from within our portfolio of products.

Oscar Mayer Naturals product line
The Oscar Mayer Natural line debuted in 2016 with cold cuts. The line has grown to include bacon, sausage and snack packs, with more innovations in the pipeline. 

Ingredient options to consider for natural labeling

As Truxal said, Oscar Mayer could use the natural claim by using select quality ingredients and removing artificial ingredients. Here are some examples.

• Natural preservatives include ingredients that assist with extending shelf life and ensuring safety. One of the greatest concerns is to control the growth of Listeria monocytogenes, which is the bacteria that causes listeriosis and is responsible for approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths each year in the US. L. monocytogenes is readily found throughout the environment and in many foods, primarily animal-based products. It also readily grows at refrigerated temperatures and growth goes undetected, which is why deli-style meats are highly susceptible to contamination and possible ingestion. Products most prone to contamination are cut-to-order meats purchased through the deli or in a hand-prepared sandwich, as these products are repeatedly exposed to microorganisms in the environment.

A natural way to control L. monocytogenes is through the inclusion of specialty vinegar ingredients. Some are produced by the fermentation of corn sugar with specifically selected food cultures. There are also buffered vinegar solutions. Acetic acid is the key active ingredient in these systems.

• Some herbs and spices can assist with extending shelf life because of their ability to function as antioxidants. For example, rosemary extract, often in conjunction with green tea extract, depending on the application, functions as an antioxidant, and thus can extend shelf life.

Rosemary extract is a concentrated source of carnosic acid, a potent antioxidant that slows the development of oxidative rancidity in raw and cooked meat. It can be dispersed in brine and injected into various meats or dispersed into a solution with other flavors and topically sprayed onto meats. Another option is to dry blend the powdered form with seasonings and apply it topically by either tumbling or through a batter. It can also be added directly to the blender, mixer or mincer.

Green tea extract is another natural, plant-derived antioxidant. The dried ingredient contains as much as 40 percent of the antioxidants classified as catechins, half of which are highly effective epigallocatechin gallate. It also contains an array of other chemicals with antioxidant activities. This includes gallic acid, carotenoids, tocopherols, ascorbic acid and minerals such as chromium, manganese, selenium and zinc.

Acerola cherry extract (Malpighia emarginata) is also proving to be a useful antioxidant in meat and poultry. Extracted from the namesake wild plant grown in tropical and subtropical regions, acerola extract boasts high levels of the antioxidant vitamin C. Acerola extract blends delay both lipid and myoglobin oxidation, thereby delaying the onset of color loss and maintaining the desirable color and quality of meat products. When used in combination with rosemary and green tea extracts, acerola is more effective at delaying discoloration than either extract alone.

• Natural ingredients to assist with binding moisture in ready-to-eat meats include native starches. Rice, potato and tapioca are the most common, as they are very bland in color and flavor, while having strong water-holding properties.

• The definition of natural does not specifically reference cure. It does, however, state that no artificial ingredients can be included. Traditional curing agents – nitrates and nitrites – are classified as chemical preservatives and thus cannot be included in a meat labeled natural. The USDA defines an uncured product as one that has been preserved without the use of chemical agents. These products can be labeled “uncured,” “no nitrates added” or “no nitrites added.” They are free of chemical curing agents, but they are typically made with ingredients that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites, such as celery, spinach and Swiss chard. There are also fruit and spice extract blends that function as natural curing agents. Some blends even have proven antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.