Taking issue with the rules

by Eric Schroeder
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Nine months after Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp. filed a petition with the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture objecting to modifications to "natural" claims, the jury is still out on the next step in the rulemaking process.

At the heart of Hormel’s Oct. 9 complaint was the F.S.I.S.’s decision to allow sodium lactate to be present in products labeled "natural." Hormel said sodium lactate was a preservative, with preservatives being prohibited both by the original "natural" policy established in 1982 and by the 2005 version, which retained the two basic premises — product must not contain an artificial flavor, coloring ingredient or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and product may not be more than "minimally processed" — established in 1982.

The F.S.I.S. allows sodium lactate to be present in a meat or poultry product as a flavoring at up to 2% of product content. The agency also has established 4.8% content as an upper limit for sodium lactate to be used as a preservative (but not in "natural" products). Hormel asserted sodium lactate at any level, even less than 2%, has an antimicrobial effect, extending the shelf life of a product. This function made it a preservative, which should not be allowed in a "natural" product.

In a change of pace from its normal procedure on codifying a revised definition, the F.S.I.S. held a public meeting Dec. 12 in which participants discussed points raised in the petition and broader issues relating to the voluntary claim "natural." In doing so, the F.S.I.S. sought to gather comments before beginning the rulemaking process.

Since the meeting was held in December, the agency received more than 50 comments on the subject. The public comment period was scheduled to end on Jan. 11, but extended to March 5 to provide time for more considered submissions. However, as of last week, the agency was still accepting comments on the subject. Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the F.S.I.S., said the agency continues to accept comments in an effort to be as thorough as possible in developing the framework for the claim.

Mr. Cohen said the responses represent "a pretty broad cross section of what the term natural should be." He said the agency now will take the comments into consideration as it works to develop a proposed rule, which the F.S.I.S. hopes to have in place by September or October of this year.

Respondents comprise a diverse group, with everyone from industry associations to individual consumers weighing in on what steps the F.S.I.S. should consider.

Defining a claim’s function

According to the American Dietetic Association, a labeling claim has two functions: be useful and meaningful to consumers in choosing foods, and achieve a food producer’s desired marketing goals.

"Before initiating rulemaking, A.D.A. urges the U.S.D.A. to conduct consumer research studies to better understand public perception of the term ‘natural,’" Mary Hager, senior manager of regulatory affairs for the A.D.A., wrote in her comments on behalf of the A.D.A. "While it seems intuitive that a meat product bearing this claim would be minimally processed, not contain synthetic additives and even be packaged in a particular way, we do not know whether the public shares this view or ranks each parameter equally. In designing such a study, U.S.D.A. would need to identify whether consumers would allow some processing methods and packaging and not others, and whether disclaimers would be acceptable if a product could not achieve a stated condition."

Andrea H. Brown, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the American Association of Meat Processors (A.A.M.P.), which is an organization that represents many of the smaller companies in the meat and poultry industry, advised that without proper guidance from the F.S.I.S., manufacturers of "natural" products and their ingredient suppliers "will not be able to continue production on a level playing field due to inconsistencies in the messages from the agency."

Ms. Brown also encouraged the F.S.I.S. to work in collaboration with other agencies within the U.S.D.A. to develop consistent policy on the term "natural" as it pertains to a broader scope of foods and beverages.

"A.A.M.P. realizes that F.S.I.S. is not dealing with the definition of ‘natural’ in exactly the same light as (the Agricultural Marketing Service), who is looking at development of a ‘naturally raised’ claim, but the consideration for the consumer preferences and perceptions and inclusion of industry stakeholders in the development process should certainly be similar," Ms. Brown noted. "If the agencies work together, the resulting definitions should be similar in their principles, making the terms more consumer-friendly. Additionally, F.S.I.S. should also be in contact with the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that definitions developed and applied to other food products follow similar principles and can be easily understood by consumers."

Ms. Brown said the A.A.M.P. agreed with the Hormel petition’s assertion that "responsible manufacturers would not sacrifice food safety in the interests of a marketing initiative," adding that whatever determination the F.S.I.S. makes for an updated definition of "natural," the products "will continue to be produced in a safe and wholesome fashion, regardless of the claim."

Ms. Brown also noted it will be important for the F.S.I.S. to be clear in how it plans to address previously approved "natural" products.

"If the agency does not handle this situation properly, products may be misbranded and misleading to consumers," she said.

Tyson sees need to revisit definition

Richard L. Bond, president and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., provided a lengthy comment on the subject, noting from the outset that Tyson agreed with the agency’s notion that it is time to revisit "natural."

"Over time there have been exponential improvements in processing techniques and analytical detection methods; general improvement in the ingredients, nutritional quality, and wholesomeness of foods; and growing consumer attention to and awareness of processing methodology and technology," Mr. Bond said. "However, we believe that unless a firm foundation for ‘natural’ is laid down, in words and concepts clear to all, case-by-case analysis will creep back into the system and we will, within another few years, be here again discussing how to redefine ‘natural.’"

Also as part of Tyson’s comments, Mr. Bond identified a demonstrated need for a clearly defined, standardized list of "natural ingredients."

"Growers, producers, manufacturers and consumers need consistency and this is the perfect opportunity for the industry and regulators to step back and create just such a list, which this commentator proposes as GRAN (Generally Recognized as Natural)," Mr. Bond said. "After a petition is filed and a safety and suitability review conducted (as used for GRAS petitions), substances would be approved as ‘natural ingredients’ by F.D.A. and F.S.I.S. with the advice of a commission modeled on the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods and the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection. The new NACGRAN would bring the perspectives of academics, scientists, producers, manufacturers, growers and consumers to the approval process and provide balance and transparency to the final decisions."

Other industries chime in

In addition to the meat industry, the "natural" definition rulemaking drew the interest of other food and beverage organizations.

The Corn Refiners Association (C.R.A.), which is a national association representing the corn refining industry in the United States, urged patience in making any final rulemaking on defining "natural."

"There is no urgent public health or other reason for rushing consideration of the complex issues surrounding natural labeling," said Audrae Erickson, president of the C.R.A. "The agency’s policy on ‘natural’ claims has been in place for many years. This is the first formal public opportunity for stakeholders to provide their views regarding the appropriate meaning of ‘natural’ for meat and poultry products. An open, transparent and deliberate process is necessary to afford stakeholders an opportunity to provide the best possible comments and information on this important issue."

The National Milk Producers Federation (N.M.P.F.), whose members produce the majority of the U.S. milk supply, pointed out the use of the term "natural" goes beyond labeling of meat and poultry products to include the dairy industry.

"N.M.P.F. cautions F.S.I.S. to ensure that any changes in the use of the voluntary claim ‘natural’ for labeling of meat products and poultry products does not interfere with the ability of dairy processors to use the term ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ on fluid milk products," said Jamie S. Jonker, director of regulatory affairs for the N.M.P.F. Dr. Jonker added the N.M.P.F. is concerned about possible extension of the term "natural" from food processing to animal production practices.

"We strongly believe that the intention of U.S.D.A. Policy Memorandum 55 (dated Nov. 22, 1982) is to regulate the use of the term ‘natural’ for post-harvest processes (food processing and manufacturing)," Dr. Jonker wrote. "N.M.P.F. does not support any efforts to extend the use of the term ‘natural’ to livestock production practices."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 10, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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