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Will we let Safeway define 'natural' for us?

Will we let Safeway define 'natural' for us?

While natural products industry members squabble over how to define “natural” products, Safeway is taking charge with its new Open Nature “natural” product line.

Smart? Yes.

Sellable? Heck yes.

If Safeway’s O Organics brand is any indicator, the retail chain knows how to beat us at our own game. Today, O Organics is one of the most dominant organic lines with 470 food and beverage items, according to the company.

Now Safeway has made another clever move by debuting its Open Nature “natural” line of foodstuffs including meat, bread, yogurt, ice cream, salad dressing, frozen foods and more. “We would like to do for natural what we did for organics,” Nancy Cota, Safeway’s vice president of innovation and new-product development, told Brand Channel.

The retailer launched Open Nature with a bang. In San Francisco, the company created the world’s longest picnic table and fed 400 participants Open Nature eats. The brand essentially set the Guinness World Record on one of its first days of existence.

But savvy marketing gimmicks aside, how exactly is the company getting serious about defining “natural”? According to the retailer, all products under the Open Nature brand are:

  • 100 percent natural—only natural ingredients from natural sources.
  • free of artificial ingredients (no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, additives and preservatives).
  • rBST-free (if a dairy product).

In addition, Open Nature goods will have all ingredients listed on the front of the package in easy-to-understand language “to illustrate these products have nothing to hide,” says Teena Masingill, spokeswoman for the retail chain.

Will Safeway’s definition clear up consumer confusion?

I’m not so sure. For one, using the word “natural” to define “natural” seems inherently flawed.

Beyond that technicality, the challenge is still to resolve the fact that “the majority believe ‘natural’ foods adhere to the same requirements as ‘organic’ foods,” Christine Bushway, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association, told a Natural Products Expo East audience last September at the education session, “Organic and Natural: Finding the Way Forward.” While products certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are tightly regulated and inspected, few rules exist for products using the “natural” label.

At the Expo session, panelists—including leaders at organic and natural food companies like Nature’s Path, Late July Organic Snacks and Applegate Farms—weren't keen on creating a federal definition of “natural.” They thought the process would take too long, so some recommended merging “organic” with “natural.” Others suggested eliminating the term “natural” entirely from food marketing. No one agreed.

I think these proposals were wishful thinking. You see, “natural” is too powerful at this point to go down without a fight. For whatever reason, consumers prefer natural over organic. According to a survey released last year by the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency, 31 percent of consumers chose “100 percent natural,” 25 percent chose “all-natural ingredients” and 7 percent chose “contains natural ingredients.” In contrast, only 14 percent chose “100 percent organic” and about 12 percent chose “certified-organic ingredients.”

Like the companies that make USDA Organic products and want to see nebulous “natural” goods vanish from store shelves, I’ve scratched my head over this one, and, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have a solution. However, now that Safeway has taken up the “natural” banner, I’m pretty sure the term—marketing magic or the real deal—is not going away.

The question remains: What are we going to do about it? When I wrote a summary of the Expo session on the topic last year, a reader left a comment: “I was present for this presentation and found it surprising (and a little disheartening) at how much the panelists seemed to be almost unreceptive to each other. Clearly this industry can’t begin to move forward if the top minds and voices are not presenting a common theme.” The reader, in my humble opinion, is spot on. If we don’t come together to offer a cohesive answer to the “natural” conundrum, well, we might as well be on board with Safeway.


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