A case for natural

by Jeff Gelski
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The Corn Refiners Association (C.R.A.), Washington, will continue to use government statements to back its stance that high-fructose corn syrup is natural, even though recently published e-mailed answers from a Food and Drug Administration staff member cast doubt on that position. The F.D.A., meanwhile, has given no indication it will act soon on a 2-year-old petition concerning the definition of natural.

"I’m not aware of the F.D.A. having any plans to address the issue immediately," said Robert Hahn, a principal attorney who specializes in food law for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC, Washington. "It’s a difficult issue, and they have other things on their plate that are more pressing."

Mark Hostetler, an attorney with St. Louis-based Blackwell, Sanders, Peper, Martin, said, "In my opinion, the F.D.A. sees no food safety or insignificant food labeling/economic injury as to ‘natural’ labeling to commit any of its scarce resources and is willing to let the market sort it out unless directed to do otherwise by the Congress."

On March 1, 2006, the Sugar Association, Washington, filed a formal petition that requests the F.D.A. "undertake rulemaking to establish specific rules and regulations governing the definition of ‘natural’ before a ‘natural’ claim can be labeled on foods and beverages regulated by the F.D.A."

When reached for comment by Food Business News, Mike Herndon, a press officer for the F.D.A., said in a statement: "As a matter of policy, F.D.A. doesn’t comment on open petitions. In addition there is no deadline on when F.D.A. will act on a petition.

"F.D.A. has not established a formal definition for the term ‘natural.’ However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."

Still, e-mailed answers from a source inside the F.D.A. and sent to FoodNavigator-USA.com called into question a natural claim for HFCS. Synthetic fixing agents used in an enzyme preparation, which then may be used to produce HFCS, could disqualify HFCS as a natural sweetener, according to the e-mailed answers from Geraldine June of the regulations and review team in the F.D.A.’s Food Labeling and Standards staff.

The C.R.A. responded that the e-mail represented a personal view and not the F.D.A.’s official position as defined under the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 21, sections 10.85 and 10.90).

Even though the e-mail carries no official or legal status, Mr. Hahn said he gave it some weight.

"It sounded like the F.D.A. had given it some thought," he said. "It didn’t sound like an opinion that was off-the-cuff."

According to the C.R.A., HFCS qualifies as a natural substance based on the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 21, section 101.22). HFCS is made from a natural grain product in corn and contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives.

A report released by Mintel in October 2007 points out the benefits of listing a product as natural. U.S. sales of natural food and drink products reached $15.9 billion in 2006, an increase of more than 33% from $11.9 billion in 2004, according to the report.

Mr. Hostetler said companies including HFCS in products promoted as natural could face opposition from groups outside the F.D.A.

"The most likely source of complaint or challenge would come from competitors or the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau, not a government agency," he said.

Mr. Hostetler said he believed healthier-perceived food products, where natural carries more of a meaningful claim, will continue to consider HFCS as part of a natural ingredients panel.

Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages promoted its 7UP beverage, which includes HFCS, as 100% natural before receiving complaints and changing the 7UP label to highlighting natural ingredients in the product.

"I think that raising the issue of natural soft drinks was sort of just asking to get an objection," Mr. Hostetler said.

What is natural?

A session titled "What is natural?" is planned for June 29 in New Orleans at "The Best of Food Thinking 2008," the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition. Three speakers will present information on the current state of regulations and policies on the use of the term natural.

The speakers are Ritu Nalubola, senior food technologist with the Food Labeling and Standards staff at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; Philip Derfler, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service; and Regina Hildwine, senior director, food labeling and standards, for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 29, 2008, starting on Page 41. Click here to search that archive.

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