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Who Should Define ‘Natural’ Food?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page and our Myth of Natural page.

The natural products business is booming. By some industry estimates, retail sales topped an eye-popping $100 billion last year, with nearly 60 percent coming from food. No wonder more food marketers are labeling their products - from Pepsi to Cheetos - natural. But what does the term actually mean?

Despite the term's popularity - or because of it - there is no official definition of "natural." With the potential to deceive consumers, the issue is now reaching a breaking point. The proposed solutions from trade groups, lawyers and government agencies range from defining the term to suing over it to ignoring it. Some consumer-advocacy organizations are even calling for a complete ban on the use of "natural" in labeling. But such disparate approaches won't help shoppers become any less confused and may even make the problem worse.

One group that wants to define "natural" is called the Organic and Natural Health Association (ONHA), a brand new trade group whose mission includes "creating and promoting transparent business practices that safeguard access to organic and natural food, products, and services." I recently attended Supply Side West, an ingredient trade show, where ONHA hosted a panel about its plan to create a Natural Seal certification based on "objective and transparent criteria." CEO Karen Howard said that "defining the word 'natural' has become a priority for the natural products industry" and that her group plans to "take swift action." (By swift they mean by the end of 2015, Howard told me.)

One of the panelists was Todd Harrison, president of the ONHA board and an attorney with the Venable law firm, which represents industry players in the food and dietary supplement sectors. Harrison said, "We need a definition of 'natural' because there is too much litigation going on" and without it, "plaintiffs' lawyers will continue to exploit the loophole; we need to eliminate the lawsuits."

According to some estimates, about 200 lawsuits have been filed based on deceptive labels. Some cases are over "natural" foods containing genetically modified ingredients, while others object to using "natural" for products that have various synthetic additives. Despite the lawsuits, and even after being expressly asked to do so by at least one federal court, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far declined (PDF) to define "natural," except to say that it does not object to the use of the term for foods that do not "contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances." The agency's assistant commissioner for policy, Leslie Kux, explained that, given the FDA's "limited resources," the issue is just not a priority.