FDA seeks consumer input on “natural” food labeling

FDA seeks consumer input on “natural” food labeling
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On Christmas Eve 2015 the Food and Drug Administration announced that it was extending the comment period on its request for consumer input on the subject of using the term natural on food labels. Back in early November 2015, the FDA first announced its request for comments to be submitted through February 10, 2016. The new deadline is May 10. The reason given for the extension is “the complexity of this issue” leading some consumers to ask for more time to formulate their thoughts. 

Dr. Marion Nestle, professor and former chairperson of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and a leading critic of the food industry commented on her website Food Politics, “The ‘complexity of this issue?’ Isn’t it obvious what ‘natural’ means when applied to food-minimally processed with no junk added?”

Dr. Nestle was, of course, being facetious. She is well aware that consumers are confused as to what constitutes “junk,” that is to say, which ingredients are natural and which are not.  Among the big question marks are ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms; and high fructose corn syrup, about which the FDA has changed its mind back and forth over the years.

Consumers want and need clarity on the issue. A 2015 Packaged Facts online survey of 2,000 consumers found that about a third check packaging labeling for the word “natural.” Women and younger consumers (18-24 year olds) showed a higher than average tendency to seek out natural products. So, too, did households with young children.

Because they know increasing numbers of consumers are looking for that labeling information, food marketers want to use the word natural on labels as often as they can. As Dr. Nestle put it, there is commercial value attached to being able to label a product as natural that makes it too important a marketing term to forbid its use even on highly processed foods.

An FDA decision could put an end to the practice of individual consumers and consumer advocate groups suing food companies for calling products natural when they include ingredients whose ‘naturalness’ could be disputed. The FDA notes that some Federal courts, as a result of these types of litigation, have requested administrative determinations. In addition, the FDA has received Citizen Petitions asking that it define the term “natural” for use in food labeling. It also reports receiving one Citizen Petition asking that the agency simply prohibit the term “natural” on food labels. 

At present, the FDA’s position is that the term natural when used on a food product label indicates that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) or anything that one would not normally expect to find in that food had been added to the product. But the agency recognizes that its position fails to take into consideration food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor does it “explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.” The FDA also points out that its position has not taken considered the question of whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.

To help it determine what course of action to take, if any, the FDA has specifically asked for information and public comment on questions such as:

  • Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”
  • If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and
  • How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

Apart from the FDA, which is a component of the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has its own definition of natural as it applies to meat and poultry products: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

The results of the FDA’s request should have an impact on the USDA’s definition, whether it leads to a change or allows things to stand as they are. It could lead to more specific interpretations of the terms ‘minimally processed’ and ‘natural ingredients’. It could also put in place specific guidelines about the relationship between what goes into animal feed and the use of the term “natural” on the labels of meat and poultry products. 

Given the extended deadline and the methodical approach the FDA will take in this matter, it’s not likely that a definition will be forthcoming any time soon. But hope springs eternal and perhaps by next Christmas we will have find a new definition of natural in our stockings.

-- By Howard Waxman