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Big Food Petitions FDA to Continue to Allow Mislabeling of Genetically Engineered Foods As "Natural"

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Myth of Natural page.

 The trade organization representing the nation's largest food and beverage companies wants permission to label as "natural" products that contain genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy, canola and sugar, according to a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration.

In the letter dated Dec. 5, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said it planned to petition the agency to issue a regulation that would allow foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled "natural."

Use of the term "natural" is now generating battles similar to previous fights over terms like organic, amid initiatives in several states that seek to label foods in a more transparent way. Last summer, Connecticut passed legislation on labeling that would make it illegal to use the word "natural" on the packaging of any food product containing biotech ingredients, and the governor signed it on Dec. 11.

The New York Times obtained the letter from the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization in Washington that favors labeling, and a spokesman for the grocery association confirmed its authenticity.

But the spokesman, Brian Kennedy, said no one from the association was available to comment because of holiday travel.

Scott Faber, vice president of the Environmental Working Group, called the association's request "audacious." He added, "It's like they're trying to get the government to say night is day and black is white."

The association's request was sent just weeks before the end of the year, when the F.D.A. is expected to establish voluntary guidelines for the labeling of foods containing biotech ingredients, based on the priorities it has identified for itself. An agency spokeswoman, Theresa Eisenman, said in an email that she could not speculate on what action the F.D.A. might take.

Sales of foods certified as organic and labeled "natural" are growing at a faster pace than sales in other categories. At the same time, companies like Chobani and Kellogg are facing lawsuits over their use of the word "natural" on processed foods that contain chemicals and other artificial ingredients.

As a result, a number of companies have quietly removed the word from their labels. PepsiCo, for instance, in August settled a lawsuit over its use of the phrases "All Natural," "All Natural Fruit" and "Non-GMO" on bottles of Naked juices. It said the phrases were intended to describe the fruits and vegetables in its juices only, and not "the vitamin boost added to some Naked beverages."