Natural Foods Merchandiser

FDA refuses to define natural

While one government agency has stepped back from the debate regarding the term natural, another is forging ahead with plans to set a marketing standard.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision in early January not to establish a definition for the term natural leaves food and beverage companies that were hoping for clarification in limbo.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responding to petitions from chicken producers, was gathering public comment through January before drafting a final rule on standards for claims of naturally raised animals.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service proposes that "animals that have been naturally raised have been raised without growth promotants and antibiotics and have never been fed mammalian or avian byproducts."

The FDA's decision comes after it received two petitions last year—one from the Sugar Association and another from Sara Lee Corp.—asking that it clearly define the term. But the agency did not respond to the petitions, blaming limited resources and more pressing food-safety issues. It also indicated there wasn't enough evidence to show consumers were confused or being misled about the issue.

The decision—or lack of one—is only likely to fan the flames of the debate over sugar vs. other sweeteners, the subject of a $1 billion false advertising lawsuit filed by the Sugar Association against Splenda maker McNeil Nutritionals, a unit of Johnson & Johnson Inc. Sugar Association officials take issue with Splenda's marketing slogan "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar," and "Good for the whole family." The trial was expected to begin Jan. 29.

The Sugar Association, in its February 2006 petition to the FDA, claimed the original chemical state of sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup and Splenda is altered so much during processing that "the allowance of a 'natural' claim is exceedingly misleading." The Corn Refiners Association countered that the petition was "a thinly veiled attempt to obtain a marketing advantage for sucrose."

The Sugar Association said it was "deeply disappointed" in the FDA's decision. "This is the appropriate time to clearly define 'natural' and protect consumers from misleading claims," said association President and CEO Andy Briscoe.

Sara Lee's April 2007 petition—submitted to both FDA and USDA—argued that sodium lactate flavoring in meats should be considered "natural," a claim disputed by Hormel Foods Corp., which has filed its own petition with the USDA, arguing sodium lactate is a chemical preservative. The USDA has not announced when a final rule will be issued.

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