Bloomberg has a story about a lawsuit over misleading advertising that Hormel, the accused company, managed to win … though it may have been on a legal technicality that makes it a hollow victory.

Here’s the context from Bloomberg:

“On April 8, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia - a jurisdiction with stringent consumer protection laws - dismissed a lawsuit by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) alleging Hormel was misleading consumers. The court held that as long as manufacturer labels are approved by the USDA, the advertising can use the ‘natural’ claims. ‘[I]f a producer can accurately use a term in a label,’ the court wrote, ‘the producer should be able to use the same term in its advertising’.”

But … in another filing, Hormel has described how “it makes some of its Natural Choice products, as well as its perception of what consumers think they’re buying …In statements disclosed in the filing, a company executive said the same pigs it uses to make its famous Spam brand meat product are also used in Natural Choice pork products. Those pigs are often given antibiotics and are rarely allowed outdoors.”

According to the story, Hormel says, “Our position has always been that Hormel Natural Choice products are produced, labeled, and marketed in conformance with all applicable laws and regulations. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has specifically reviewed and approved the labels for Hormel Natural Choice branded products, including scrutinizing and approving the ‘Natural’ and ‘Preservative’-related language.”

However, David Muraskin, a food project attorney at Public Justice and lead lawyer for the ALDF, call it “a massive attempt to manipulate and dupe the consumer to purchase something they have no intention to purchase.”

KC's View: Speaking as a civilian/consumer - I am neither a lawyer nor a food company executive - I’d like to suggest that while Hormel may be disingenuous in its approach, the core problem is with regulations that in some cases are a joke. I cannot imagine what the regulators were thinking when they posited that meat from animals given antibiotics could be labeled as ‘natural.’ I’m pretty sure that’s not what consumers are thinking when they see that word, and maybe it is time that regulations reflect reality, not what lobbyist gave the most money to some political party. (Forgive my cynicism.)

This is especially true at a time when, as Bloomberg writes, “American shoppers are reaching for healthier, more environmentally and animal-friendly meat products, with 39 percent saying ‘all-natural’ is the most important claim when purchasing red meat, according to a recent survey by Mintel.”

Is USDA’s definitions don’t match consumer expectations, then we have a problem - and the problem is with the USDA, not shoppers.

By the way … it’d be nice if Hormel went beyond what the government expects and actually live up to what consumers expect. They should be transparent, not tricky.