Labels and liability: Until the law is laid down, food companies cry "natural" at their own risk

June 17, 2014 by Justin J. Prochnow
Labels and liability
“Until regulators or legislators define the issue . . . consumers must perform their own evaluation about what ‘natural’ means to them,” writes Justin J. Prochnow. Credit: Depositphotos

In 2002, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy group that routinely challenges food companies on their labeling claims, asked the FDA to take action against that upbeat ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's for calling some of its products "all natural." The CSPI argued that the products, including the aptly titled flavor "Everything But The…," contained artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils and other ingredients that are made in factories, not by nature.

But scrutinizing the naturalness of a chocolate-and-vanilla ice cream concoction of peanut butter cups, Heath bar pieces, white chocolaty chunks and fudge-covered almonds was not at the top of the FDA's to-do list. The FDA responded that "natural" was "not among the FDA's current enforcement priorities."

In fact, despite repeated requests from a variety of sources, the FDA has expressly declined to define "natural" in any regulation or formal policy statement. In 2006, the Sugar Association, hoping to gain an edge on competitor high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), petitioned the FDA to define natural, to no avail. In 2010, a handful of federal judges stayed pending litigation over the use of "natural" for beverages containing HFCS, with the expectation that the FDA would formally define natural, yet no definition was forthcoming.

When the FDA has addressed questions of "natural," it has relied on a more informal policy it issued in 1993. It allows use of the term "natural" when "nothing artificial or synthetic . . . has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food."

With only this informal statement to work from, the FDA has taken little regulatory action about use of the word "natural," other than a handful of warning letters. In 2011, it issued a quartet of letters to companies saying they had improperly used the term "natural," because they use chemical preservatives.

In 2013, the FDA issued two more letters. One went to a company for using "natural" to describe an artificial crab meat product containing artificial flavors, preservatives and dough conditioners. The other letter took issue with an "all-natural" claim for a product containing artificial rye flavor.

The lack of a formal definition for "natural" has been a major reason lawsuits over food-labeling claims (typically, consumers bringing a class-action suit against a manufacturer) have reached an all-time high. The range of products under attack has expanded to include such common ingredients as alkalized cocoa and ascorbic and citric acids.

More recently, "natural" litigation has focused on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in such products as granola bars, snack crackers and tortilla chips. The debate has led to attempts to pass laws requiring labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients. Earlier this year, Connecticut was the first state to pass such a law, although the legislation won't kick in unless at least four other states, including one bordering Connecticut, pass similar bills.

Several high-profile ballot initiatives on GMO labeling have failed to pass, including a provision in California's Proposition 37 in November 2012, and a recent initiative in the state of Washington. Despite those defeats, similar bills are in the works in other states, and a proposal for federal legislation on the issue was submitted earlier this year. Will the continued drive for state initiatives force the FDA to adopt a uniform definition to apply nationwide? Possibly, if more of the state efforts are successful or enough groups clamor for a national standard. Only time will tell.

So, while the FDA took steps last summer to clarify certain claims ("gluten free," for example, now has a standard), the meaning of "natural" is still a subject of fierce debate. Consumer advocacy groups rail that manufacturers are using the term "natural" with impunity, while marketers argue that such groups overreach their needs. Until regulators or legislators define the issue, companies are left to make "natural" claims at their own peril, and consumers must perform their own evaluation about what "" means to them.

Explore further: In US, 'natural' food may be anything but

Related Stories

In US, 'natural' food may be anything but

February 5, 2014
In the United States, pre-packaged foods loaded with artificial ingredients and chemicals can make it onto grocery store shelves boasting the label "natural."

US cos. push voluntary labels on modified foods

February 6, 2014
America's large food companies are trying to head off efforts to enact mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients by proposing new voluntary labels nationwide.

PepsiCo to no longer call Naked juices 'natural'

July 26, 2013
(AP)—PepsiCo Inc. says it will no longer label its Naked juices as being "all natural," after a lawsuit complained that the drinks contain ingredients that don't fit that bill.

States weighing labels on genetically altered food (Update)

January 22, 2014
In the absence of federal regulation, American state governments are considering laws to require labels on food items containing genetically modified ingredients.

Fuzzy rules govern "natural" claim on food labels

April 3, 2014
Most people would agree that nutritious kale in its most pristine and unprocessed form is the epitome of a natural food. Grown in the earth and shipped to the market with little to no packaging or labels needed, fresh, green, ...

Genetically modified foods confuse US consumers

May 9, 2014
Genetically modified foods have been around for years, but most Americans have no idea if they are eating them. The Food and Drug Administration says they don't need to be labeled. But in the first major victory for consumers ...

Recommended for you

Sugar not so sweet for mental health

July 27, 2017
Sugar may be bad not only for your teeth and your waistline, but also your mental health, claimed a study Thursday that was met with scepticism by other experts.

Could insufficient sleep be adding centimeters to your waistline?

July 27, 2017
Adults in the UK who have poor sleep patterns are more likely to be overweight and obese and have poorer metabolic health, according to a new study.

Vitamin E-deficient embryos are cognitively impaired even after diet improves

July 27, 2017
Zebrafish deficient in vitamin E produce offspring beset by behavioral impairment and metabolic problems, new research at Oregon State University shows.

The role of dosage in assessing risk of hormone therapy for menopause

July 27, 2017
When it comes to assessing the risk of estrogen therapy for menopause, how the therapy is delivered—taking a pill versus wearing a patch on one's skin—doesn't affect risk or benefit, researchers at UCLA and elsewhere ...

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.