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Should we define 'natural' or stick to organic?

Should we define 'natural' or stick to organic?

On June 25, the Natural Products Association reported good news for its 4-year-old Natural Seal program: over the last 90 days, the number of certifications it has provided under the program has grown 30 percent. That means some 1,100 products now carry the NPA’s Natural Seal.

This growth isn’t surprising. As the NPA’s new executive director and CEO, John Shaw, explains: “American consumers want to buy natural, but they get confused at the store because everyone claims their products are natural—[but] the fact is that many are not.”

The NPA’s third-party certification program is a step in the right direction toward bringing actual meaning to the natural label in the personal care and home care products categories. This is helping at least one retailer grow her business.

Says NPA member Peggy Ranger, owner of Peggy’s Natural Foods in Stuart, Fla.: “In my store, there’s been a spike in requests for natural products. I’m seeing more interest in items with the Natural Seal as I’ve marketed them more to my customers. The Natural Seal helps products stand out on my store shelves and I’m glad to see more of them in the marketplace.”

I applaud the NPA’s Natural Seal efforts in the personal care and household products categories, but what’s being done to better define "natural" for foods and beverages, where label confusion is particularly prevalent?

Tackling the 'natural' food label

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration loosely defines natural as “nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected.” This clearly isn’t sufficient to prevent the rampant “naturalwashing” at the center of the growing number of lawsuits related to the alleged misuse of the natural moniker.

Although the call for better defining natural in the food and beverage space is getting louder, no significant action is happening yet to do so. FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci told Natural Foods Merchandiser in March that the agency is paying closer attention to “how natural is used in the marketplace and how consumers perceive the word.”

As many industry insiders say, however, FDA is highly unlikely to take any steps in the near future to more rigorously define the term.

The NPA is planning to create Natural standards for food categories, but the association’s Cara Welch says the process is going slower than first anticipated. “[This is] mostly due to NPA staff resources than interest from the industry,” says Welch, NPA’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “We are still hopeful to finalize the standards for a couple categories this year but, in all reality, it may get pushed to 2013.”

The first categories to be tackled by the NPA are likely to be snacks & cereals and meat & poultry, Welch adds. “Once those standards are finalized and approved through the NPA channels, we’ll work on setting up the certification process so we can actually certify foods.”

Not all retailers and consumers are clamoring for a better-defined natural label, however. “MOM’s is very focused on certified-organic products, so the need to define natural is not something we’ve really focused on,” Lisa de Lima, vice president of grocery at MOM’s Organic Market in Maryland and Virginia, told NFM. “Understandably, there’s confusion among a segment of consumers, but I think those people shop more in mass-market stores. Mom’s customers tend to be very educated about food issues and seek out organic products.”

Would you like to see natural better defined, either by the government or industry? Or are you focused on organic at the exclusion of natural?

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