Natural Foods Merchandiser

USDA considers definition for 'natural'

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week began considering public comment on a possible legal definition for the marketing term natural for meat and poultry.

The Dec. 12 meeting, the first of three scheduled listening sessions, began the rulemaking process, and was aimed at gaining perspective about a legal definition from interested parties. More than 19,000 comments were submitted for the forum, regarding confinement issues, access to pasture, grain supplementation and use of antibiotics and hormones.

Currently there is no regulatory definition for the term natural, only a 1982 USDA policy memo establishing that products labeled natural should not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients and must be only "minimally processed." In October, Hormel Foods petitioned the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the USDA, to establish a legal definition for the term in regard to meat and poultry. FSIS announced it would commence rulemaking after a term of public comment.

In the Dec. 12 session, FSIS sought input regarding changes in food processing techniques that have occurred since the original policy began; consumer views and perceptions; and recent food safety concerns.

Hormel's petition, in addition to agreeing with the 1982 policy, argued that to maintain consumer confidence and consistency in labeling, exceptions for specific chemical preservatives and synthetic ingredients should not be permitted, speaking to FSIS's controversial recent allowances for a handful of ingredients, including sodium lactate.

Dennis Stiffler, executive vice president of food safety at Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, said under the current definition, almost anyone can slap a natural label on a single-ingredient, minimally processed product. "It's too vague," he said. "It misrepresents those consumer expectations."

Stiffler said the regulated animal-raising processes should include standards for animal well-being and care and production; identification; source verification; raising and feeding practices, especially certain dietary aspects; and the resulting product. Also, Stiffler said no antibiotics, added growth hormone or growth modulators should be administered from birth.

Christopher Ely, cofounder of Applegate Farms in Bridgewater, N.J., suggested a system similar to the National Organic Program, with a board similar to the National Organic Standards Board, which could work with the industry to come up with solutions.

The last two listening sessions are scheduled for Jan.17 and 18.

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