Last Friday, Ben Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, returned to his family home in Fremont after a bruising Congressional session. “Wife met me at door shouting: ‘@HormelFoods has a new No-Nitrates Bacon!!’” he tweeted. “I’m sad I’ve never made her this happy.” It was a typically savvy bit of positioning from Sasse. Fremont is home to the second-largest Hormel plant in the United States, after the flagship site in Austin, Minnesota, and the tweet was virtually an endorsement of what the company expects to be the best-selling part of its recently reintroduced “Natural Choice” line of products. In fact, in May, Hormel raised its second quarter earnings projections on the strength of forecasted sales of the ready-to-eat pork line, which is billed as an “honest product made with clean ingredients.”
Yesterday, however, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a non-profit that uses the legal system to fight for animal rights, filed suit against Hormel Foods in Washington, D.C., alleging that the company’s claims that its “Natural Choice products are natural, clean, and wholesome are materially false and misleading.” The suit further alleges that “All animals raised and slaughtered for Hormel’s product lines, regardless of whether they ultimately become Natural Choice products are raised on industrial, pharmaceutical-dependent factory farms. The animals are raised completely indoors in abusive conditions and given hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs. All animals are sent to the same processing facilities, where they are slaughtered in the same inhumane way.” In fact, the suit points to Hormel’s own literature showing that the back meat for a “Natural Choice” pork loin, for example, may come from the same pig as belly meat packaged as conventional Hormel bacon. “This is a far cry from what reasonable consumers believe ‘natural’ to mean.” A representative from Hormel responded to a query about the lawsuit, noting that the USDA’s Safety and Inspection service had “specifically reviewed and approved the labels” for Hormel Natural Choice branded products. “We stand behind our labeling and advertising and intend to vigorously defend ourselves.” Such sentiments only show the flaws in the existing regulatory system, further incentive for the suit.
The suit follows on a survey conducted by Consumer Reports last year, asking meat buyers what they thought they were getting when they picked up a package labeled “natural” at the grocery counter. The majority thought it meant that no growth promoters, such as hormones, had been used; that no antibiotics were administered to the animals; that their feed contained no GMOs; that the animals were free-range; and that no artificial ingredients or colors had been added in processing the meat. The report also found that more than 80 percent of consumers buying “natural” meat products were doing so because they were concerned about overuse of antibiotics and the mistreatment of animals in industrial farming facilities.
ALDF says that none of those consumer expectations are being met by Hormel’s Natural Choice products. They also argue that Hormel’s use of “nitrate-free”—the change that got Senator Sasse’s wife so excited—is misleading. According to the ALDF complaint, the label claim is based on the use of a process that injects Natural Choice products with cultured celery juice powder or similar plant-based powders that are high in sodium nitrate. The “cultured” part means that the celery powder is mixed with a lactic acid starter culture, says to the suit, which converts sodium nitrate to sodium nitrite. And—voila!—“nitrate-free.” “There is nothing natural about the way Hormel produces its products,” Kelsey Eberly, staff attorney at the ALDF, told me. “Not the way the animals are raised, fed, or treated, nor the processing of the meat.”
These apparent consumer deceptions are especially concerning in light of Hormel’s recent corporate acquisitions. In May of last year, the company bought Applegate Farms, the top-selling brand in the natural and organic prepared meat category. Many observers were skeptical; Hormel, after all, pioneered the practice of raising hogs on antibiotics. At the annual stockholders meeting in January, the company announced that Applegate CEO Kerry Collins would be replaced by Steven J. Lykken, a 24-year veteran of Hormel Foods. Boxes of crayons were passed out—with the red Applegate crayon alongside the orange Hormel crayon—with the explanation: “If you think about Hormel Foods as a box of crayons, Applegate was the color we needed to add to our box.”
At the same time, Hormel bought the Reel Food café space at the main hotel for the Sundance Film Festival and began posting pictures of a who’s-who of young stars—Lena Dunham, Daniel Radcliffe, Nick Jonas—eating Applegate products in front of signs that read, “Humanely-raised, antibiotic free, no growth hormones.” Gina Asoudegan, the wonderfully titled senior director of mission at Applegate, recently told Fortune that meat managers at Hormel explained to her that they saw a need “to clean up labels and remove ingredients to better reach millennials.” (Last month, Hormel extended this strategy with another acquisition: Justin’s Specialty Nut Butter, which makes USDA-certified organic nut butters and chocolates sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa.) “What [Asoudegan] realized,” according to the Fortune cover story, “was that it didn’t have to be about Applegate selling out. Maybe Hormel was buying in, and moving—albeit slowly—toward a different, perhaps more enlightened, model of food production.”
But just last Friday, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) issued a statement opposing the addition of animal welfare rules to the USDA organic certification program. “Animal welfare is not germane to the concept of ‘organic,’” the statement read, even if surveys, such as the Consumer Reports study, indicate that grocery shoppers believe otherwise. “Consumer confusion about the meaning of ‘organic’ should not drive rulemaking.” The opposition is especially striking, because newly elected president of the NPPC, Ken Maschhoff, is also the co-owner and chairman of The Maschhoffs, the third-largest pork producer in the United States. Just last month, that company was the subject of an ALDF undercover video showing severe animal abuse and neglect at one of its Nebraska-based sow barns that supplies Hormel Foods in Fremont. The video was damning enough that Hormel issued a suspension of all of The Maschhoffs’ Nebraska sow operations and ordered an independent investigation. (No results have yet been announced.) Last fall, similar video was released by Compassion Over Killing, showing abuse on the cut-and-kill side of the Austin, Minnesota, plant where Hormel pork is principally processed.
In other words, if the ALDF complaint is accurate, Hormel already sells pork raised on antibiotics, GMO feed, and in total confinement as “natural.” Now, if Hormel and the National Pork Producers Council headed by one of their chief suppliers have their way, pigs raised in confinement and subjected to inhumane treatment at a processing facility could even be labeled as “organic.” When Applegate founder Stephen McDonnell sold to Hormel last year, he said that change of ownership raised a series of appropriate questions for consumers: “Can you still trust us? Will Applegate still support GMO-labeling? Antibiotic-free animal agriculture? Humane treatment?” In other words, would the culture of Hormel change Applegate, or would Applegate’s philosophy reshape Hormel? McDonnell insisted it would be the latter. “This is all easy to say, of course,” he said. “So I don’t ask you to take me at my word. Just watch what we do.”