In the US, the FDA has a “longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labelling”. The position is that the term ‘natural’ is considered to mean that ‘nothing artificial or synthetic’ (including colour additives) has been added to or included in a food product. This position seems clear and simple, but it has proven to be woefully inadequate for the purposes of determining ‘natural’ claim disputes.
The FDA has now noted that the rapid changes to the food ingredient and production landscape has meant the application of this policy is no longer clear. In addition, this policy was not intended to address food production methods (including the use of pesticides) or food processing or manufacturing methods (which now extend to increasing use of thermal technologies, pasteurisation, irradiation and a growing list of new technologies). The existing policy also doesn’t extend to the question of whether the term ‘natural’ can describe a nutritional or health benefit (being the claims currently strictly codified under the FSANZ in Australia), and this is where many ongoing claims have arisen.
The general result from this, not only in the US but also in Australia, has been for consumers to (at worst) be confused as to the food labelling claims being made, or (at best) be mistrusting of these claims, even when they are made legitimately.
Consequently, the FDA is now considering and seeking comments on:
- Whether it is appropriate to define the term ‘natural’;
- If so, how the term and acceptable use of ‘natural’ should be defined; and
- How this acceptable use of ‘natural’ on food labels can be determined by the FDA.
The final question above really highlights just how complicated this issue is in practice, when a large, well-funded and long established body such as the FDA is struggling with how it can not only define, but also police the use of this specific term.