Spurred by citizen’s petitions, federal court requests and decades of debate and indecision, the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may finally be inching its way to formally defining the word “natural.” In an announcement made Tuesday, the agency is asking for public input on the term “natural” in the labeling of food products, including foods that are genetically modified or contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Genetically modified nature
The FDA has notoriously declined to determine whether GMO foods can be labeled “all natural,” to the frustration of consumers waging litigation over the vague term on food products they pay a premium for. When federal district courts questioned the legality of promoting genetically modified ingredients as natural, the FDA declined to give an opinion. Instead, the agency relies on the federal requirement that labeling must not be false or misleading.
Lawsuits and petitions
The problem, is due largely to the FDA’s failure to define what constitutes “natural” and “all natural” in food labeling. This has resulted in individual consumers and consumer groups filing class-action lawsuits against manufacturers with “all natural” claims on product packaging. As a result, some industry-specific trade associations have petitioned the FDA to issue regulations or other formal guidance.
Although the FDA has refused to establish a formal definition for the term “natural,” they do have a general policy concerning the use of natural in human food labeling:
“The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean 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. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”
Feed is not food?
Although the agency has specifically requested for comment on the use of the term on human food, it is important to realize that the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) defines food as “articles used for food or drink for man or other animals…” Therefore, any article that is intended to be used as an animal feed ingredient, to become part of an ingredient or feed, or added to an animal’s drinking water is considered a “food” and thus, is subject to regulation.
But, the agency’s assessment of the law is that it was not intended and does not apply to animal feed, including pet food. Therefore, even though a human food is considered misbranded if its labeling is false or misleading in any way or fails to include required information, the same rule may not apply to pet food or animal feed.
Despite these differences, I feel it is important for consumers to weigh in and tell the FDA what they think of the proliferation of “natural” claims on pet food packaging.
What the FDA wants to know
Specifically, the FDA is asking for information and public comment on questions such as:
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;
The agency also requested data that would offer information on whether consumers associate or are confused by the use of the terms “natural” and “organic” and whether consumers associate the terms “natural” and “healthy.”
Your chance to have your say
The FDA is accepting public comments beginning on November 12, 2015. To electronically submit comments to the docket, visit http://www.regulations.gov and type in docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box. Comments are due within 90 days of the publication.
Should the comments lead to an administrative decision, it could impact the ways food companies label products. Although, it is important to remember, that while an administrative clarification on the term could impact consumers, a formal definition is not legally binding. A formal definition, as opposed to a loose definition, is still only an FDA guidance policy for manufacturers. Guidance policies are merely an indication of how the FDA may handle actions on products labeled natural.
Until there is a rule regarding the use of the term natural, manufacturers will lay the blame for their lawsuit woes over alleged false advertising at the feet of the federal government, saying the FDA hasn’t done enough to define the phrase “all natural” for consumers. With no regulations to fall back on, consumers will continue to resorting to legal action.
But, on the bright side…
On the bright side, in light of the controversy, manufacturers worried about litigation are taking a proactive stance and are removing “all natural” claims from their packaging on both human food and pet food products.
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