How should natural be defined (if at all) on food labels? This is a question that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has posed to the general public—they want to hear from you and me! Now’s our chance to provide feedback on the future of food labeling. What are you going to say?
Stimulating this call for feedback, the natural food landscape is constantly changing and consumers are confused. One of my favorite authors, Michael Pollan, makes the case for why “natural” no longer means anything in his New York Times piece. As the article suggests, natural is an extremely subjective word with a lot of ambiguity in definition—especially for food. Furthermore, nearly two out of three people believe “natural” means a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms, and more than 80% believe that it should mean those things, according to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey. It is a controversial subject with various opinions spanning manufacturers, consumer groups and farmers.
The FDA’s responsibility is to “protect the public health by assuring that foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled.” Following recent lawsuits and controversy around natural labeling, the agency has received three citizen petitions with a request to define the term “natural” and also received one citizen petition asking to prohibit the term “natural” on food labels. This is the FDA’s prior stance on natural:
“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” (FDA Basics)
Now, we can help define what natural means in the future. Some retailers like PCC have decided their view on the subject, “We give no credence to the word ‘natural’ on product labels, we look beyond labels to scrutinize ingredients and the method of production to decide whether we accept or reject products. There are a lot of ‘natural’ products that we don’t carry, and never would carry.”
The research confirms food labeling statements help consumers choose which products to buy. Fortunately for their consumers, PCC has buyers and food experts that research the ingredients and claims. However, the average consumer does not have time or the resources to sort through the messaging and labels on-shelf. If the word was banned, would we be better off? If it’s on there, what does it mean? Where is the line between natural and artificial?
Now through February 10, 2016, you can submit your opinion. Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on these key questions:
- 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?
How to Comment
To comment on the term “natural” on food labeling:
- Read the request for information and comments.
- Submit comments electronically or by mail.
UNFI’s VP of Policy & Industry Relations, Melody Meyer, will be sharing feedback based on her decades of experience in the industry. Will you join her in voicing your opinion based on your experience?