September 27, 2016
Food makers, FDA seek uniform standard for confusing term that can have many definitions
Each year, the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approves about 100,000 product labels before they can be sold to consumers.
But the job of the FSIS and its sister agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has become more challenging as food makers add popular buzzwords such as "natural," "humanely raised," "cage free," "grass fed" and "antibiotic free" to food labels in an attempt to grab the attention of consumers willing to pay more for these items.
"For labels that ... are required to be submitted to us, we have increasingly seen a larger number of them that have claims, such as 'no antibiotics used' or 'low sodium' or 'healthy' or 'does not contain growth hormones,'" said Dan Engeljohn, an assistant administrator with FSIS. "There is a whole variety of claims that marketers want to put on products that we have an obligation to make sure is truthful."
As part of the agency's broader review of labels, the FSIS is assessing claims that it can verify in a lab, such as testing to determine the presence of antibiotics or growth hormones. FSIS also is in the process of defining "natural," a popular term with a definition that has morphed with changing food production methods and genetically modified ingredients.
"We know there is considerable confusion" on the term natural, said Engeljohn, who has worked at the USDA since 1979. "We see the need to better define the terminology."
The FDA, which also is considering defining the word natural in response to petitions and lawsuits, long has considered foods to be natural if they do not contain anything artificial, synthetic or that would not ordinarily be expected in that food.
Still, the FDA acknowledges on its website its policy is not intended to address food production methods, such as use of pesticides, processing, thermal technologies, pasteurization or irradiation. The agency says it's difficult to define a product as natural because it likely has been processed and is "no longer the product of the earth."
These challenges have opened up natural to a variety of interpretations, increasing consumer confusion. Neil Hamilton, a law professor at Drake University, said with a plethora of definitions, many of which are verified by third-party organizations not affiliated with the federal government, there is more onus placed on the consumer to verify label claims and the credentials behind the groups affirming those standards have been met.
"It isn't necessarily that people want food cheaper, it's that people want food better," Hamilton said. "I don't think there is any reason to assume that companies won't continue to use labels that they think are accurate or of interest to consumers."
Food companies are keenly aware of what they can legally say on a label, Hamilton said. In some cases, food manufacturers employ an alternative term—such as "natural" instead of "organic"—that is incorrectly viewed as similar by the public, allowing them to attract the same pool of consumers but with fewer regulatory hurdles.
As natural has been slapped on more products, lawsuits have followed. More than a hundred have been filed against manufacturers alleging misleading use of the word. Last month, three consumer groups sued General Mills, accusing the food giant of violating consumer protection laws by labeling Nature Valley-brand granola bars natural when they contained trace amounts of the pesticide glyphosate. The lawsuit said the label was misleading and false. Rob Litt, a General Mills spokesman, said: "We stand behind our products and the accuracy of our labels."
In June, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Hormel Foods over its Natural Choice deli meats, saying its advertising campaign touting the absence of artificial ingredients and preservatives was misleading because the products contain nitrates and were from animals raised indoors with growth-promoting drugs.
A Hormel spokesman said the company stands behind its products and added items "produced, labeled and marketed as natural must be in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."
In recent years, dozens of food and beverage companies have removed all-natural labels from some products, including Kellogg's Kashi, Unilever's Ben & Jerry's ice cream and PepsiCo's Naked Juice.
"If (companies) see there is a danger or a risk of misleading them, it's smarter not to make a claim that you cannot support," said Sophie Ann Terrisse, a senior adviser with brand-management firm 26FIVE in New York.
To be sure, "natural" remains big business for the food industry. American shoppers spend more than $40 billion a year on natural chips, breads, fruit drinks and ice cream, among other foods.
A 2015 Consumer Reports' survey found consumers often have their own definitions of "natural" meat and poultry. About 65% believe it means no artificial colors or ingredients; 59% said it means animals were not given GMO feed; 57% said it means they weren't given antibiotics or other drugs; and half said the animals went outdoors.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food and beverage companies, has supported efforts by the FDA to create a uniform standard for natural, noting many different interpretations could hurt public perception of the food industry.
"That's why we want a common definition," said Robbie Burns, vice president for health and nutrition policy at the GMA. "It does affect the credibility of the food industry."
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