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FDA struggles to define what “natural” means for food labels

all natural food label

After decades of debate there remains no generally accepted definition of a “natural” food product. Despite a gamut of products with the label prominently displayed, it has caused a headache in lawsuits for the government who have yet to define “natural”. According to new research, while regulatory agencies have refused to settle the issue, they may be under new pressure from those consumer lawsuits.

“Consumers don’t agree on a definition either, yet clearly believe that ‘natural’ is important,” writes author Ross D. Petty (Babson College).

“In 2009, 30% of newly launched foods claimed to be natural but by 2013 this dropped to 22%, possibly due to an increase in the number of consumer lawsuits. Lawyers are increasingly willing to take cases which regulatory agencies have abandoned.”

In 1973, the Federal Trade Commission warned that no other area of national health was as abused by deception as nutrition, but by 1983 the FTC had given up on the issue of defining “natural” products. The FDA required in 1977 that artificial flavors be identified as such, but refused to define “natural.” When federal district courts in 2014 questioned the legality of promoting genetically modified ingredients as natural, the FDA declined to give an opinion.

The US Department of Agriculture fared better, requiring that “natural” meats be free of substances such as artificial flavoring. The industry itself sporadically addressed the “natural” problem, with the Council of Better Business Bureaus advising Nutrasweet to cease claiming it was “made from natural ingredients.”

Industry progress in general, however, has been limited. With no regulations to fall back on, consumers have begun resorting to legal action, petitioning the FDA in 2001 to act against “natural” food products that hid genetically modified ingredients. Next came the “Sugar Wars,” with the Sugar Association and Equal suing Splenda for claiming it was natural. Splenda resisted, and as of April 2014, no natural community class action lawsuit has actually gone to trial.

“Though natural food lawsuits to date have disappointed, they encourage marketers to drop the claim of being natural or reformulate their products to avoid future lawsuits. Perhaps this will persuade the FDA or FTC to consider creating, finally, a definition for the meaning of natural,” concludes the author.

While knowing what you are eating is important for some, it is important to remember that words like all-natural and organic don’t actually have a meaning. They are in all actuality buzzwords like new and improved, to help increase sales and make people question other brands that lack the prominent label. This new research and the recent wave of lawsuits really emphasizes that fact. For example, what would a non-natural food look like? In any case, with the rising popularity of those buzzwords, these labels are causing new headaches for government agencies. Who are now scrambling to create a framework that fits what the general public things “natural” actually means.

Petty, R. (2014). “Natural” Claims in Food Advertising: Policy Implications of Filling the Regulatory Void with Consumer Class Action Lawsuits Journal of Public Policy & Marketing DOI: 10.1509/jppm.14.147

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