A topic now under consideration by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ought to capture the attention of anyone involved in alternative agriculture and the natural food business.
Simply put, the topic is: What does “natural” mean?
In November, the agency issued a request for comments “on the use of the term ‘natural’ in the labeling of human food products, including foods that are genetically engineered or contain ingredients produced through the use of genetic engineering.”
The comment period was scheduled to close in February but now has been extended until May 10.
Seems to me that this is a rather important issue. After all, most of us are involved in the “natural food” business…whatever that means these days.
Once upon a time, there was general consensus on the meaning of natural food. Most people considered “natural” to describe crops grown without synthetic pesticides and meat produced from animals not treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. But clever marketers and manufacturers soon realized that the term natural could have a broad spectrum of meaning, and the term exploded onto food labels up and down the grocery aisle.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) aided and abetted the confusion by narrowly defining natural as a processing claim meaning “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” In other words, an animal could be treated with growth hormones and fed antibiotics, but the meat could be labeled natural if nothing artificial was added during processing.
The FSIS’s sister agency, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), attempted to clarify the issue in 2009 by issuing a regulation that would allow producers to use the “USDA Naturally Raised” claim to identify meat and poultry products produced from animals not treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. But no one saw the value to establishing a costly, audit-based verification program to market “USDA Naturally Raised” meat that would sit in the retail case next to “natural meat” products sourced from conventional animals. Further, AMS finally withdrew the “Naturally Raised” labeling program in January, after concluding that it didn’t have the authority to override FSIS (see my All grassed up and wondering where to go blog).
Meanwhile, consumer groups angered by what they perceive as misuse of the term, have filed a series of class-action lawsuits against some of the major food manufacturers and retailers.
With all of that controversy swirling, it would seem to reason that the FDA would be flooded with public comments asking for a standard, reliable definition of “natural.” After all, in the hierarchy of federal agencies, definitions adopted by the FDA trump everything else. Yet, as of April 16th, only 1,477 comments have been filed. That’s about 11 per day.
If we’re really concerned about protecting the integrity of the meaning of “natural food,” perhaps it’s worth a few moments to weigh in with a comment regarding the use of the label on foods containing GMOs, and animal products produced with growth hormones and antibiotics. To submit a comment, simply click here and follow the instructions.