Volume 87 Issue 17 | p. 28
Issue Date: April 27, 2009

'Natural' Foods

Fuzzy and inconsistent food-labeling policies cause confusion, misuse of the term
Department: Government & Policy
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Au Naturel
Numerous products with claims of being "natural" are showing up on grocery store shelves.
Credit: C&EN
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Au Naturel
Numerous products with claims of being "natural" are showing up on grocery store shelves.
Credit: C&EN

CONSUMERS ARE often willing to pay more for simple, less processed foods with wholesome ingredients, and food marketers are starting to take notice. The number one category of new food and drink products in 2008 included those items labeled as "natural," according to the market research firm Mintel.

Exactly what it means to be labeled "natural" depends on whom you ask. The Food & Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, which regulate the bulk of the U.S. food supply, have different views on what is natural. The food industry is confused by the current inconsistent and unclear policies and is asking the government for guidance. But no federal agency has made the issue a priority.

During a webinar presented earlier this month by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Food & Drug Law Institute, Ritu Nalubola, a senior food technologist with FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, described unsuccessful attempts by FDA to establish a definition of "natural" in the 1990s. Limited resources and other priorities ultimately ended the effort.

Although FDA still does not have an official definition of the term, the agency maintains its position, first articulated in 1988, that "natural" means "nothing artificial or synthetic, including colors, regardless of source, is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there." FDA evaluates food products on a case-by-case basis for the appropriateness of the use of the term natural, Nalubola said.

Some examples of foods that should not be labeled "natural," include salmon that contain the dyes canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, products containing chemical preservatives, and milk that contains added synthetic vitamins, Nalubola explained. In addition, any coloring, even if it is from a natural source, precludes the "natural" label, she emphasized.

FDA does not encourage the use of the term natural on food labels because the word is "potentially ambiguous and may unjustifiably imply superior quality or safety," Nalubola noted. But food products that fall under FDA's jurisdiction, which includes about 80% of the U.S. food supply, are unlikely to face scrutiny for misusing the word natural on their labels. "This is not an area of emphasis for compliance and enforcement," Nalubola said.

FDA has not recently taken any action against products for inappropriate use of the "natural" label, pointed out Ricardo Carvajal, an attorney with the firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, which represents the food industry. "Manufacturers have the responsibility to ensure that their products comply with the law; however, FDA has the burden of proving that there has been a violation," Carvajal noted during the webinar.

The lack of action by federal regulators has some food companies concerned. For example, the Sugar Association petitioned FDA in 2006 to formally define the term natural and exclude high-fructose corn syrup from that definition. And in 2007, baked goods manufacturer Sara Lee petitioned FDA to make its policy on "natural" food labels consistent with that of USDA's. FDA has not responded to the petitions because of limited resources and competing agency priorities, Nalubola noted.

USDA's policy regarding the descriptor natural on food labels is similar to FDA's, with one exception—it takes into account whether ingredients have been processed, Carvajal said. USDA has jurisdiction over meat, poultry, and egg products.

Like FDA, USDA evaluates the appropriateness of claims of naturalness for food products on a case-by-case basis. However, unlike FDA, which does not review and approve labels before a product hits the market, USDA does approve product labels prior to marketing.

In 2006, USDA was petitioned by Hormel Foods to officially define "natural," but the agency has been quiet on the issue, Carvajal noted. The agency was subsequently sued by Hormel, and the litigation—involving whether poultry injected with certain solutions can be labeled "natural"—continues, he said.

The Federal Trade Commission, which has jurisdiction over food advertising, has also been quiet on the issue, Carvajal said. "FTC has no regulation or policy that explicitly addresses 'natural' claims and little record of enforcement."

ON THE OTHER HAND, the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus has been very active in this area, Carvajal noted. NAD is a self-regulating body that provides a forum for competitors to challenge each other's advertising claims for truthfulness and accuracy.

Without such forums, the food industry would be left with the opportunity to market just about any product it wants as being "natural," Carvajal said.

Meanwhile, even as consumer demand for natural foods increases and manufacturers of legitimate natural products look for clarification, the issue remains a low priority for federal agencies like FDA, Nalubola said.

 
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