FDA declines to define 'natural'

Despite receiving petitions from the US Sugar Association and food giant Sara Lee in 2007 requesting it define the term 'natural' in relation to foodstuffs, the US Food and Drug Administration has indicated no definition is forthcoming.

An FDA labelling spokesperson told Foodnavigator-usa.com the agency's limited resources were better employed elsewhere despite the consumer confusion and labelling abuse that occurs in the absence of a formal definition. "The bottom line is we'd have to have consumer research that shows overwhelmingly that people are being misled," said an FDA spokesperson who added it was not in possession of such research. "Even if people interpret it in different ways it doesn't mean there is confusion out there," she said. "If there was, then we would definitely raise it as a priority".

The Sugar Association expressed disappointment at the FDA position. "There are several things that are of concern to us," said Sugar Association president and CEO, Andy Briscoe. "First is the claim that it is not a consumer issue; second is the fact the Agency says consumer research is needed before it can make a ruling; and finally is the Agency's contradictory stance on the issue of natural over the years."

It noted the surge in demand for all things organic and natural backed by 2007 Mintel market surveys that revealed 'All Natural' as the second most frequent claim made on US food product launches, appearing on 2,023 products and 405 beverages.

The Sugar Association said it was unrealistic to call for consumer research because consumers could not be expected to keep abreast of food technology developments and new ingredients and therefore would often be unaware if they were being misled. "We hope that the FDA will reconsider defining the term 'natural' as a priority. This is the appropriate time to clearly define 'natural' and protect consumers from misleading claims," Briscoe said. "After all, the FDA has established regulatory guidelines for the term 'healthy,' why can't the same be done for 'natural?'"

Indeed, in the 1993 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act final rule, the FDA stated it "believed that if the term 'natural' were adequately defined, the ambiguity in the use of this term, which has resulted in misleading claims, could be abated."

The FDA ignored research submitted to it by the Sugar Association in its petition that found 83 per cent of 1000 people surveyed favoured regulating 'natural' claims. A 2006 Harris Interactive survey found consumers believe FDA should provide an official definition for making a 'natural' claim.

But the natural products industry has not been quick to respond to this issue either. Darrin Duber-Smith, President, Green Marketing Inc, was instrumental in forming a task force of 26 industry organizations in 2003 called the International Association of Natural Products Producers with a mission to develop a complete and enforceable definition for natural so that, in the absence of government regulation the industry could self regulate. "I have been very disappointed at the overall apathy with regard to this issue over the years," he said. "It has been very difficult to represent this industry at mainstream conferences when we can't even define the term that describes our industry. We must first define what natural means and then determine what constitutes a natural product."

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