WASHINGTON — The announcement that the Food and Drug Administration has not put defining the term "natural" on its priority list has left several industry associations confused and disappointed.
In a Jan. 4 article on foodnavigator.com, a top ranking F.D.A. official was quoted as saying defining natural was not a priority because "we’re not sure how high of an issue it is for consumers." The comments, made by Geraldine June of the F.D.A.’s Food Labeling and Standards department, came even as the F.D.A. continues to work on a formal response to petitions filed in the past two years by the Sugar Association and Sara Lee Corp. asking for a definition of "natural."
In the foodnavigator.com article, Ms. June acknowledged a variety of products on the marketplace carrying the natural claim, but said "even if people interpret it in different ways it doesn’t mean there is confusion out there. If there was, then we would definitely raise it as a priority."
The F.D.A. generally allows foods to be labeled as natural if such a claim is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
Ms. June told foodnavigator.com that health and nutrient claims, as well as rising concerns with food safety, have taken priority over the issue of defining natural. She added that more consumer research is needed showing people are being misled by current natural claims before the issue is pushed onto its radar screen.
Responding to the article, the Sugar Association, which filed a petition seeking clarity on the issue in February 2006, remains unconvinced of the F.D.A.’s logic.
"There are several things in this article that are of concern to us regarding their decision not to define natural at this time," said Andrew C. Briscoe, president and chief executive officer of the Sugar Association. "First is the claim that it is not a consumer issue; second is the fact the agency says consumer research is needed before it can make a ruling; and finally is the agency’s contradictory stance on the issue of natural over the years."
In regards to lack of consumer research on the topic, the Sugar Association said it is unrealistic to rely on consumer knowledge of food technology to evaluate whether or not consumers are being misled.
"We strongly encourage F.D.A., as the governing agency for food labeling, to establish appropriate regulations for making a natural claim on food packaging," the Sugar Association said.
The Sugar Association also referred to a 2006 survey conducted by Harris Interactive that found consumers overwhelmingly believe the F.D.A. should provide an official definition for making a natural claim.
"We hope that F.D.A. will reconsider defining the term ‘natural’ as a priority," Mr. Briscoe said. "This is the appropriate time to clearly define natural and protect consumers from misleading claims. After all, F.D.A. has established regulatory guidelines for the term ‘healthy,’ why can’t the same be done for natural?"
The American Bakers Association, which last year submitted comments to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging the F.S.I.S. to work closely with the F.D.A. to produce a harmonized, universal definition of natural, said it was "disappointed that F.D.A. will not move forward to define natural."
"I think that F.D.A.’s current position to not define is symptomatic of F.D.A.’s lack of resources and available staff to review certain issues and is disappointing," said Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs, A.B.A.