Defining what is natural

by Jeff Gelski
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NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to release two Federal Register notices concerning the definition of natural, and they may come later this year, said Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, deputy assistant administrator in the office of policy and program development for the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.).

The first notice from the F.S.I.S. would offer proposed rulemaking and request comments. The second notice, also from the F.S.I.S., would issue an interim policy statement.

"The agency is far enough along that we believe we will have this published by end of calendar year," Mr. Engeljohn said June 29 in a session titled "What is Natural?" at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting & Food Expo in New Orleans. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 to a meetingroom in the Morial Convention Center.

Mr. Engeljohn said the Federal Register documents may involve how the U.S.D.A. views modified-atmosphere packaging and its relation to natural claims. The documents, since they are from the F.S.I.S., probably will not address animals raised with or without antibiotics. That issue relates to rearing and handling, Mr. Engeljohn said.

Dr. Ritu Nalubola, of the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety and Applied Nutrition division, also spoke at the I.F.T. session. She works in the office of nutrition, labeling and dietary supplements.

Ms. Nalubola said the F.D.A. is reviewing high-fructose corn syrup and whether it is natural. The F.D.A. also continues to review petitions on the definition of natural from both the U.S. Sugar Association and Sara Lee Corp. The F.D.A. has not been able to respond to the petitions because of competing agency priorities and limited resources, Ms. Nalubola said.

Both the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A. agree on several natural claim issues, including that color additives never may be natural. For example, if beet juice were used to make lemonade pink, the lemonade could not be called natural, Ms. Nalubola said. She listed other examples of what could not be called natural (see sidebar). When asked to list examples of what may be called natural, she said the F.D.A. discourages companies from promoting products as natural. The F.D.A. believes a natural claim has the potential to be ambiguous and it unjustifiably may imply superior quality or safety, she said.

Both the U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A. said a product must have only minimal processing to qualify as natural.

"Could grandma do this in her kitchen?" Mr. Engeljohn said.

Both the U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A. evaluate natural claims on a case-by-case basis. The U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A. differ in that companies first must receive approval from the U.S.D.A. before using a natural claim. Companies may use a natural claim on a product without receiving approval from the F.D.A. although the F.D.A. may take regulatory action once the claim is in place.

Regina Hildwine, senior director of food labeling and standards for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, was the final speaker. She said the G.M.A. does not have a stance on the definition of natural because G.M.A. members have been unable to reach a consensus on it. She added dictionaries give several definitions for natural, which points out the complexity and difficulty for government agencies wanting to define it.

Ms. Hildwine listed several potential issues in any ruling about natural. For example, she said she wonders if a ruling on natural will involve processing aids. Also, a ruling on natural might lead to a list of acceptable ingredients and a list of unacceptable ingredients. She said the U.S.D.A.’s National Organic Program already has those lists for organic claims.

No chance at natural

NEW ORLEANS -— Dr. Ritu Nalubola, of the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety and Applied Nutrition division, listed examples where the F.D.A. would not allow natural claims on processed foods and beverages.

● Cheese products with artificial coloring,

● Water with vegetable juice for added color,

● Surimi seafood sticks colored with paprika and caramel,

● Salmon products produced from salmon that consume feeds containing coloring ingredients,

● Products containing chemical preservatives,

● Milk that contains added synthetic vitamins

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 8, 2008, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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