A 180 on ‘natural’ labeling

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Certainly, the current laissez-faire approach to defining the term ‘natural’ on food labels is untenable. But a consumer advocacy group is pushing for exactly the wrong kind of fix. 

The self-proclaimed protector of buyer’s rights, Consumer Reports, has been campaigning all summer to force USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to ban the word “natural” from all food labeling. Just recently, the nonprofit advocacy group partnered with the social media site TakePart.com to publicize its mission. 

Calling use of the term “natural” in relation to food products “misleading, confusing and deceptive,” the Consumer Reports publicized a recent survey of 1,000 people in which a large majority believed that the term natural means something other than what it ought to describe. 

The survey reported that consumers believe that the natural label on meat and poultry products should mean that the animal was not given growth hormones (89%) or antibiotics and other drugs (81%), and that their feed did not contain genetically engineered organisms (85%) and artificial ingredients (85%). According to the survey, substantial majorities also think natural should mean no chemicals were used during processing (87%), no toxic pesticides were used (86%), no artificial ingredients or colors were used (86%) and no GMO ingredients were used (85%). 

Here’s what the TakePart.com post states: 

“Even though the Food and Drug Administration does not object to the term natural as long as ‘nothing artificial or synthetic’ is added, there is no definition for the term, which essentially means no regulation and no oversight. As a result, ‘natural’ processed foods can include ingredients from nature that are processed into artificial ingredients and may also come from plants grown with toxic pesticides, bioengineered seeds and chemicals processed with synthetic solvents.” 

Okay, I’m not sure if that last phrase was missing a word (“. . . chemicals or processed with synthetic chemicals”) or if there really are chemicals that are processed with synthetic solvents (aren’t solvents themselves chemicals?), but you can see how cleverly the word “bioengineered”—which technically is natural—is slipped into a word sandwich along with Toxic pesticides, chemicals and synthetic solvents—none of which anyone wants in their food. 

“The goal [of the Consumer Reports campaign] is to clear up some of the ‘green noise’ in the food label marketplace,” said Urvashi Rangan, PhD, Food Safety and Sustainability Center Executive Director, “so that American consumers can be more confident in their food choices.” 

The stance consumers take in regard to their food preferences shouldn’t be surprising, seeing as how those demands are aggressively stoked by supermarket and foodservice operators—not to mention the fact that “natural” is a growth market. Big time. 

Here’s what market researcher IRI stated a couple years ago: “Products that can be positioned as naturally nutritious or containing no additives or preservatives have increased U.S. sales of natural foods and beverages 7.7% between 2010 and 2011.” In 2010, 30% of the highest-grossing new food and beverage products launched domestically carried a natural or organic label claim, according IRI data. 

But although estimates of annual sales of natural, and organic foods now top $20 billion annually, the retail marketplace is as confused as consumers. Here’s what a recent analysis by the Institute of Food Technologists stated in reference to the natural foods category: 

“Ironically, this seemingly pure and simple market has become amazingly complex, with overlapping terminology, industry misperceptions as to the size and priority of specific market demands, and the reality of facing some long-ignored issues, such as humane animal treatment, antibiotic practices, natural fortification and GMOs.” 

Wrong way to go 

The email petition that Consumer Reports and TakePart.com want people to forward to the regulatory agencies states in part that, “We urge FDA and USDA to prohibit the use of the “natural’ label on food, prohibit a natural label on meat and poultry products and ban ‘naturally grown,’ ‘naturally sourced’ or ‘from nature’ label statements as vague and misleading.” 

Consumer Reports claims that this fight is all about “empowers consumers with the knowledge they need to make better and more informed choices,” and for “fair market practices.” 

That’s baloney—and not the all-natural kind. 

These groups are pushing for a ban on the use of the word natural because it would benefit their biggest benefactors: the organic industry. If they really believed their own propaganda about empowering consumers, then they would push FDA and USDA to take exactly the opposite approach: Define “natural” so that it does have meaning in the marketplace and on food products. 

If the goal is providing people with more information about the foods they purchase and consume, then take steps to ensure that “natural” means something. Simply banning the word natural may help Consumers Reports’ allies, but it doesn’t make anyone more informed. 

And besides, there are food products that really are natural. How do you label those? “Does not contain chemicals processed with synthetic solvents?” 

I agree that the present situation is confusing and misleading. But the answer isn’t less information. It’s better information. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator


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TX  |  August, 06, 2014 at 01:42 PM

If they were really concerned about consumers instead of their anti-ag positioning, they would be trying to ban the word "organic" from food labels.

iowa  |  August, 07, 2014 at 12:34 PM

More bs and confusion over a simple issue. Define labeling so everyone understands exactly what the terms mean. In addition i also second John's comment about use of the word "organic". Personally my family raises all our cattle(purebred black angus) naturally on grass. No hormones or drugs. But in order to have our beef labelled as such we would have to go through middlemen who want a good chunk of money. Instead we just sell on the open market. At least we know our quality product is getting to the avg consumer. We would get roughly the same if we sold to one of these middlemen, but then they turn around and make a fortune by their marketing and only a select few could actually afford our product. Of course these "organic" peddlers are greasing palms to keep their business alive, just slimy people if you ask me.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  August, 07, 2014 at 01:37 PM

Bob, "organic" is defined such that everyone knows exactly what it means -- unlike "natural." And somebody has to certify compliance with the requirements to use that label, otherwise it loses its market power. Organic is no different from kosher. You pay some rabbi to stand around and certify that the proper rituals are followed. Same system of third-party verification, but hardly one I'd label as slimy.

Texas  |  August, 07, 2014 at 02:23 PM

Well done Dan. Is not the consumer responsible for understanding the label claims on the products they consider for purchase? Dan is correct - of all the claims, organic is perhaps the most well defined (USDA standards). The American Grassfed Association has well established guidelines for the grassfed product carrying their logo. Beyond the USDA definition of natural - minimally processed, no added preservatives or artificial ingredients - natural has been defined by the producer's specifications for their brand or label (ex. no growth promotants, antibiotic use). Those pursuing organic products should carefully read the packaging. Consumers often equate "organic" for locally grown when in fact an appreciable number of the organic products are imported from South America (ex. Uruguay).


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