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Natural Foods Merchandiser

ConAgra sued for labeling GM cooking oils 'natural'

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to define the term natural, industry experts hope the ConAgra Foods lawsuit sets a precedent for the word's use in labeling processed foods.

A New York City law firm filed a class-action suit against Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods for labeling its four Wesson brand cooking oils 100% natural, even though they're made from genetically modified organisms.

Milberg LLP filed a suit against the agribusiness giant in June, saying the company's Wesson oil contains genetically modified ingredients and therefore does not qualify as natural. The plaintiff in the case said he relied on the oil's 100% natural label to ensure he was choosing a healthy product.

"Anyone who is labeling something natural that contains genetically engineered ingredients is misleading consumers and providing fraudulent labeling," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public health organization that has initiated landmark legal actions to halt the planting of GM crops and supports the Milberg suit. "ConAgra and other manufactures should be prohibited from making these types of claims."

It could be Monsanto's own definition of genetically modified organisms that seals the case. The world's largest producer of genetically modified seeds defines GMOs as "plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs."

A new future for natural food labeling?

The case may have a far-reaching impact. The Food and Drug Administration has not defined the term natural and few rules exist for its use. Some experts feel that this lack of regulation is why natural now appears on roughly 70 percent of processed foods and beverages, according to the Center for Food Safety.

On its website, Milberg LLP cites other manufacturers that use the term on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. “Indeed, many companies selling GMO products target health and environmentally conscious consumers by labeling them natural, even though they are composed of GMOs,” the site reads. “For example, Kix cereal, Wesson oil, Pam spray, and Frito-Lay chips all claim 100% natural on their packaging, but in actuality, they contain GMOs.”

A study released last year by the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency, found that the term natural resonates more with consumers than other claims, which may also explain its widespread use. When asked what is the best description to read on a label, 31 percent of survey respondents chose “100 percent natural,” while only 14 percent chose “100 percent organic.”

"It will be a closely watched case, particularly in the industries of processed foods, where corn and canola oil are major ingredients and almost all of those varieties are transgenic," Kimbrell said.

Organic experts hope the lawsuit sets a precedent for the use of the term natural on all processed foods. "If this case is successful, it would be a major milestone for the industry," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association. "Ultimately, we'd like to see labeling on all foods made with genetic engineering, and this would certainly be a step in the right direction."

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