Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it is seeking comments and information on the use of the term “natural” in food labeling. The move is in response to three citizen petitions, from industry stakeholders, requesting that the agency define “natural” for food labeling and one citizen petition, from Consumers Union, asking for a prohibition on the term. The FDA also stated that it is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to examine “natural” labeling for meat, poultry, and egg products.
The last time the FDA considered establishing a definition for “natural” in food labeling was 1991, when it published a proposed rule on labeling and sought comment on whether the agency “should establish a meaningful definition for ‘natural’ so that this term would have a common consumer understanding, and whether it should prohibit ‘natural’ claims entirely on the grounds that they are false or misleading.” FDA declined to define “natural” by rulemaking in 1993, but has continued to maintain its policy that labeling a food as “natural” means 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 that food.” Critically, the FDA’s policy does not address methods of food production (like genetic engineering or pesticide use) or processing and manufacturing (like pasteurization), nor whether “natural” describes any nutritional or health benefit.
The three petitions to the FDA regarding “natural” labeling all seek guidance on whether “natural” can apply to certain methods of food production, processing, and manufacturing. Two of the petitioners requested better harmonization with the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service standards. The Consumers Union petition, seeking a prohibition on “natural” food labeling, argues that “natural” is “vague and misleading,” citing a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey. That survey “suggests that nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers are currently misled by use of the term ‘natural’ on certain food labels and nearly 90 percent expect it to ‘mean much more than it does.’”
The FDA has posed several specific questions to commenters on when “natural” labeling is misleading to consumers, including input on application to food production, processing, and manufacturing practices, as well as a request for consumer perception data on confusion with terms like “healthy” and “organic.” The agency is accepting comments through February 10, 2016, via docket number FDA-2014-N-1207.