After receiving nearly 7,700 comments from the food industry, consumer associations, and members of the public, FDA is trying to figure out how to revise its “longstanding policy” regarding use of the term “natural” on food labels.
Specifically, FDA is seeking to determine whether, through rulemaking, to allow foods produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), foods made from crops that have been treated with chemicals, or foods processed with thermal technologies or irradiation to be labeled “natural.” Alternatively, it is considering whether “natural” should be banned from food labels altogether, as several major consumer groups are requesting. The implications of these changes could be significant for the “healthy” foods industry, which is projected to achieve a $1 trillion global market by 2017.
“When we established our policy concerning the use of the term ‘natural’ [in 1993], it was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of genetic engineering or other forms of genetic modification, the use of pesticides, or the use of specific animal husbandry practices,” FDA explained in its November 12, 2015 Federal Register request for public comments. Rather, the agency’s policy—which remains in effect—means only that “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food” (58 FR 2302 at 2407).
In the decades since FDA promulgated the policy, the term “natural” has come to mean widely different things to different people. Thousands of consumer complaints have been lodged and scores of class-action lawsuits have been filed over the presence of GMOs, artificial, or synthetic ingredients in “natural” food products. According to recent surveys, two out of three consumers believe “natural” means that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added, that no toxic pesticides were used during growing, that no chemicals were used during processing, and that the product contains no GMOs. In short, most consumers think that “natural” is a close cousin to “organic,” with the advantage of costing less.
In reality, under current FDA policy, “natural” foods may be grown with pesticides, may be chemically processed, and may contain GMOs. They may or may not cost less than organic.
For many years, this definition worked well enough, but as food technology has developed, the agency has not kept pace. For example, the FDA has declined requests from three separate Federal District Courts over the past five years to advise on when ingredients produced using genetic engineering may or may not be labeled as “natural.” FDA received citizens petitions from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in 2014, Sara Lee Corp. in 2007, and The Sugar Association in 2006 asking it to define the term “natural,” and received a petition from the Consumers Union in 2014 requesting that it ban “natural” from labels altogether because the term is “false and misleading” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
“We’ve seen time and again that majority of consumers believe the ‘natural’ label means more than it does, and by buying ‘natural’ foods, they may think they’re getting the same benefits as organic, but for less money,” says Urvashi Rangan, PhD, director of Consumer Union’s Food Safety & Sustainability Center, which commissioned three annual nationwide surveys on label issues. “The term ‘natural’ is organic’s imposter,” she added. “It’s time for the ‘natural’ label to go away.”
Plethora of Viewpoints
In its formal comments to FDA, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, reiterates its opposition to the term “natural” but added that if FDA continues to allow it, the agency should consider food production techniques and not just processing methods and ingredients; rely on the USDA “organic” standards as a baseline for certification, verification, and enforcement; prohibit the addition of artificial ingredients; and require third-party verification. Organizations supporting this position include the Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth U.S., and the National Organic Coalition.