The Food and Drug Administration call for comments on defining “natural” raises the stakes for the natural food industry with a move that could not only define the word but define the future of the movement itself as conventional food companies attempt to pivot into the space.
Indeed, the process may very well present the natural food industry with a grow up or go home moment.
On Tuesday, the administration announced a request for comments on “the use of the term in labeling of human food products,” highlighting among other factors, a “citizen petition” from the Grocery Manufacturing Association. In the announcement, the FDA also cited lawsuits in which the administration was called to define natural. The FDA does not mention a Vermont law set to take effect in July requiring GMO labeling, nor the proposed Accurate Food Labeling Act, which includes language directing the administration to offer a definition and nulls state GMO labeling laws, but both laws compound the urgency in the battle over a definition. Until now, the FDA had declined to become involved, leaving natural to effectively be defined by plaintiff’s attorneys suing companies for alleged misuse of the term on products containing GMOs or other artificial ingredients.
Now, with the possibility of a definition set by federal regulators, the natural products industry finds itself facing a well-funded and well-organized conventional food industry. Michelle Simon, a lawyer specializing in food who blogs at eatdrinkpolitics.com, calls it a pivotal moment for natural foods. “It is a call to action,” Simon says. “It is a call to arms for this industry to band together and fight the likes of the GMA.”
Simon has cautioned the natural products industry about lacking the will or sophistication to get effectively involved in policy matters. “The good news is that natural food is so successful that the rest of the food industry is trying to mimic it. That’s fantastic. Now you have to make sure that doesn’t erode the integrity,” Simon says. “If conventional food gets a hold of 'natural,' what does that say about the industry that started it?”
Natural food companies cannot afford to be naive or unprepared, Simon says. “The junk food industry is not just politely putting in comments. They are physically beating down the doors of FDA.”
The process will likely have effects in the market long before a definition for natural is even presented.
David Biderman, a lawyer at California-based Perkins Coie who represents food companies he describes as “big conventional,” says the parade of lawsuits over natural will most likely be put on hold. “I suspect that a lot of defendants in the all natural cases will be seeking a stay,” Biederman says.
The FDA announcement came as “a surprise” to Biederman, but he pointed to the GMA’s petition as a primary cause behind the FDA’s request for comments and predicted that big food will be very involved.
Karen Howard, CEO at the Organic and Natural Health Association, says her organization is well prepared to weigh in. ONHA, formed in 2014 with a mission to define natural, is prepared to present a detailed definition in January.
“The timing couldn’t be better for all the work that we have been doing,” Howard says.
But good timing and effective influence over the decision are very different things, Howard notes. “It’s not always about the best argument and the most rational argument that wins the day, and I am well aware of that,” Howard says. “As soon as the FDA steps into the limelight, the level of control we have diminishes significantly.”
But Howard, like Simon and Biderman, also notes the FDA is unlikely to move quickly on the issue. The comment period already extends into February, and comment periods are routinely extended. Even after that, the possibility of action in an election year is minuscule, she says. “We’ve got a long way to go on this one.”