U.S.D.A. working to define what is 'natural'

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — A "timely" petition from Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., has opened a rulemaking process through which the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to establish a new definition for the voluntary claim "natural" and guidance on how the claim may be allowed on the labels of meat and poultry products.

The Hormel petition submitted Oct. 9 objected to modifications made by the F.S.I.S. in August 2005 to its longstanding policy on "natural" claims that since 1982 provided a definition of the voluntary claim "natural" and guidance on how the claim could be used on product labels. The original policy was based on two basic premises. First, in order to earn a "natural" claim, a product must not contain an artificial flavor, coloring ingredient or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient. Second, a product may not be more than "minimally processed."

The "natural" policy has been modified on occasion "to be consistent with prevailing policies, to reflect case-by-case decisions and to update regulatory preferences," said Dr. Robert C. Post, the F.S.I.S. director of labeling and consumer protection staff, Office of Policy, Program and Employee Development. The policy was more extensively modified in August 2005 "to record caseby-case decisions made in approving labels for ‘natural’ products containing sugar, sodium lactate and natural flavors," Dr. Post said.

Hormel objected to the F.S.I.S. decision to allow sodium lactate to be present in products labeled "natural," asserting the substance was a preservative, with preservatives being prohibited both by the original "natural" policy and by the 2005 version, which retained the two basic premises on which the 1982 policy was established.

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.

Hormel also objected to the F.S.I.S. referring food manufacturers to the National Organic Policy to identify ingredients that may be allowed in meat and poultry products labeled "natural." Hormel said the National Organic Policy "allows ingredients that even though they may be naturally derived would, within context, be considered ‘artificial’ within the Natural Policy."

The Hormel petition resulted in a Dec. 12 public meeting held by the F.S.I.S. to discuss points raised in the petition and broader issues relating to the voluntary claim "natural." The meeting was well attended, Dr. Post said. On but a week’s formal notice of the meeting, 19 individuals from meat and poultry companies, food associations and other concerned parties provided comments during the session.

Dr. Curt J. Mann, U.S.D.A. Undersecretary of Agriculture responsible for the Office of Food Safety, told meeting participants the Hormel petition was timely in that it focused attention on a "natural" policy established more than 20 years ago, which could not take into consideration advances in meat processing and ingredient technologies in the intervening years.

Dr. Post told Food Business News the F.S.I.S., upon receipt of the Hormel petition, decided to approach the matter on codifying a revised definition of "natural" differently from what is normal procedure. Instead of responding to the petition by developing a proposed rule and then requesting public comment, the agency decided to hear from stakeholders first, in a public setting. The decision to proceed in this manner underlined the importance attached to the issue by the U.S.D.A., Dr. Post said.

"There have been so many different views on the ‘natural’ policy, we decided it was important to take a reading on those views before beginning the rulemaking process," he said.

A wide range of views were expressed during the public meeting. Dr. Post said there were those who argued that in order for a product to be denoted "natural," it should be a single ingredient, with nothing added, basically a cut of meat. On the other end of the spectrum, individuals suggested technologies have emerged since the initial "natural" policy was established that should allow for a higher degree of processing without compromising a product’s "natural" claim status.

Also a consideration discussed during the meeting was determining the status of certain dual-function ingredients, such as sodium lactate, which may provide antimicrobial action even as it is used for another purpose, such as flavoring. Dr. Post pointed out in recent years the F.S.I.S. has devoted increased attention to enhancing the safety of meat and poultry products. Toward that end, the agency has found appropriate use of antimicrobials very helpful. Dr. Post said under current rules governing the use of the claim "natural," an applicant would have to demonstrate sodium lactate was not being used as a preservative. Dual-function ingredients are problematic under current rules, Dr. Post acknowledged.

There also was disagreement at the meeting over whether sodium lactate, which is derived from corn, is itself a minimally processed product. Some argued it was, while others contended its manufacture exceeded the definition of minimally processed, and it should not on that account be allowed as an ingredient in a "natural" meat or poultry product.

The F.S.I.S. has provided a public comment period extending to Jan. 11, after which it will begin work on developing a new rule relating to the use of the voluntary "natural" claim. Nine industry associations have requested the comment period be extended 60 days to provide time for more considered submissions. Dr. Post last week confirmed receipt of the request and indicated a decision would be forthcoming.

The F.S.I.S. requested those filing comments address five questions that also were posed to persons attending the Dec. 12 meeting:

• Is it reasonable to include as part of the definition of "natural" a stipulation that products can be no more than minimally processed to be eligible to bear the claim?

• Are there any accommodations necessary to allow for certain operations because food processing and packaging techniques for enhancing food safety may disqualify a product as "natural?"

• What are the implications and conflicts that exist with regard to using current and new food processing methods and certain classes of ingredients, and the meaning of the claim "natural" on the labels of meat and poultry products?

• What do consumers think the terms "minimal processing," "artificial and synthetic" and "preservatives" mean?

• Do food safety and consumer protection benefits of using what historically may have been considered more than minimal processing techniques and antimicrobial agents outweigh conflicts with the meaning of "natural?"

Comments may be submitted to fsis.regulationscomments@fsis.usda.gov.

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