Walk into any food store and it's clear that manufacturers are hoping to target consumers' increased interest in natural and organic fare. Everything from organic Oreos to all-natural nacho chips lure customers into believing that even if these products aren't as nutritious as what they pick up in, say, the produce aisle, they're still better than their non-natural alternatives.
But while the U. S. Department of Agriculture has extensive—and closely regulated—requirements for the organic label, its definition of natural, which applies only to meat and poultry, leaves much to be interpreted, according to consumer interest groups and even many livestock producers. And the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling and packaging, has no official definition for the term.
"Companies have a grab bag full of claims they can make," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Calling a product natural implies that it's healthier, but many times they are packed with very unnatural ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup. It's a trick, and we need better regulation from the government."
That's also what beef producer Mel Coleman, chairman of Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, is hoping for. Last December, he petitioned the USDA for a revised definition of the agency's voluntary natural claim, which says that a product labeled natural should not contain any artificial flavor, coloring or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and its ingredients may not be more than minimally processed. This definition was created in 1982 and is essentially the same today, says Robert Post, director of the labeling and consumer protection staff at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the USDA. But, says Coleman, it's missing an important element: The current definition does not include how an animal was raised.
"Conventionally raised livestock are being called natural under the USDA's current 'minimally processed, no artificial ingredients' definition," Coleman says. "But many consumers don't realize that some of this 'natural' meat has been pumped with growth hormones and antibiotics." Hormel Foods also petitioned the USDA last year for a ruling regarding the natural label, and as a result of both petitions, the agency held a public hearing in December. It was still considering public comments at press time.
"Rulemaking isn't always something that occurs as fast as we'd like, but we're developing a proposed rule based on the comments we've received, and I hope to have a document that's being considered within our agency in the next few months," Post said in April. Until that happens, the current definition is what the USDA will follow in its evaluations.
"We do a thorough evaluation of all labels with claims, and we will not abandon the term during this period of rulemaking," Post says. "In order to use a natural label, data must be supplied at the time of approval so we can inspect the ingredients. There is currently a rigorous process to evaluate labels, and this will continue."
Meanwhile, the FDA has also received a petition to establish regulations governing the definition of natural for food and beverages the agency oversees. In February 2006, the Washington, D.C.-based Sugar Association said in a letter to the FDA that the agency's "current policy has engendered a great deal of ambiguity … In the 12 years since FDA last solicited comments on establishing rules for the use of natural claims labeling, consumer interest in natural products has risen considerably. Therefore, FDA rulemaking on this important consumer consideration for purchasing foods and beverages is not only timely, but is necessary to preserve consumer trust as well as safeguard the interests of companies that market natural products."
The Sugar Association said it hopes the FDA adopts a similar definition to the USDA's, asking in its letter for the agency to allow a natural claim only if a food does not contain anything artificial or synthetic, and that a food or food ingredient is not more than minimally processed.
Sebastian Cianci, a spokesman for the FDA, would not comment on pending legislation, but says the agency does intend to complete a review of the petition and will consider whether any amendment to existing regulations is appropriate. "Of course, progress on it will be dependent on resources and what other food-safety issues are going on at the same time," Cianci says.
While the FDA does not have a formal definition for the term natural, the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels, provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading, Cianci says.
But consumers, and the organizations working to protect them, argue that the label is misused often. "Consumers need to know that if they see the word natural on a food product, generally they're being taken for a ride," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association and an advisory board member of the OCA's recently formed Naturally Occurring Standards Group, a research program created to develop clear scientific methods that distinguish naturally occurring materials from those that are synthetic or unnatural. "Consumers don't want to be deceived by untruthful labels, even if the government allows those labels to be there," he says.
Maren Hubbard, a naturals shopper in Albuquerque, N.M., agrees. "On my last shopping trip, I saw cookies labeled 'all-natural' and luckily, I checked out the ingredients before I tossed them in my cart," says the 27-year-old nurse-midwife. "They were loaded with high fructose corn syrup. How does that qualify as something that's minimally processed?"
It's this kind of consumer confusion that has motivated Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association, to inspire change—starting within his own organization. Fabricant says the NPA is currently mobilizing the "right people"—adding work groups and staffing them with knowledgeable sources—to come up with a set of guidelines for the use of the natural label.
"I think there's a lot of concern over the FDA's ability to enforce, and this has been a tough year for them with the spinach and pet food issues," he says. "I don't think that for people to really trust a certification, it has to come from the government. If our organization can [define natural] successfully, why would we need the government to follow suit?"
Regardless of when the USDA will publish its natural definition revision, if the FDA will establish one and what those definitions might look like, retailers can take some steps to ensure the products they stock are as natural as possible.
"There are plenty of companies who aren't just out for a marketing advantage," Fabricant says. "And even though being knowledgeable on all sorts of topics is really tough, retailers have a pretty good idea of who's making a good product with integrity. And that's what will keep customers coming back to the store."
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Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p.36-38