'Natural' may be the defining issue of 2014

by Keith Nunes
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The Grocery Manufacturers Association is asking the Food and Drug Administration to define what constitutes a “natural” food or beverage product. In a Dec. 5 letter to the F.D.A. the trade association said it wants the agency to make a determination of whether foods containing ingredients derived from bioengineering may be labeled as natural.

The impetus for the G.M.A.’s effort is the spate of state legislative efforts for food and beverage products that include ingredients derived from bioengineering to be labeled, and the volume of class action lawsuits filed against food manufacturers for labeling products as natural that contain ingredients the plaintiffs claim may not be defined that way.

“These forces are converging to create a patchwork of ‘state-by-state’ laws that are not only inconsistent with each other, but are directly at odds with F.D.A.’s stated policy on the labeling of foods derived from biotechnology,” the G.M.A. letter said. “(The) G.M.A. is concerned that differing state laws and judicial decisions will inevitably confuse consumers and impose unnecessary costs on the food industry.”

Despite considering the issue several times during the past 35 years, the F.D.A. has declined to establish a regulatory definition of natural. Instead, the agency has developed a “natural claims policy” that is enforced through warning letters sent to companies labeling products as natural that contain ingredients that are artificial or synthetic.

The G.M.A.’s effort is warranted and necessary. Natural is an effective labeling claim and one that food and beverage companies should be free to use as long as products meet the F.D.A.’s definition, whatever it may be. Today, many companies are shying away from the term and law firms that represent many of the largest food and beverage companies are recommending manufacturers to not use the label claim (see story, this issue, Page 1).

Another problematic issue is consumer perception of bioengineering and the ingredients derived from the technology. More than half of consumers express concern about bioengineered ingredients, but when asked to describe the ingredients many are unclear as to what they are, according to study released Dec. 19 by The NPD Group.

The study, titled “Gauging G.M.O. awareness and impact,” asked consumers to explain what the term genetically modified organisms mean. Common words used included “genetically altered,” “not natural,” and many simply said they did not know.

While 44% of the consumers surveyed said bioengineered ingredients offer some form of benefit, The NPD Group said a high percentage expressed some level of concern.

The study comes at a time when interest in bioengineered ingredients is high, because of the news surrounding the state ballot initiatives in states like California and Washington. The NPD Group said news about the efforts may be a factor in the levels of concern regarding bioengineering.

It is worth noting that in 2012, a study conducted by the International Food Information Council found that a majority of Americans would be likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology if they knew about the benefits such products may deliver. Seventy-seven per cent indicated they would be somewhat or very likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology that required fewer pesticide applications and 71% indicated they likely would purchase biotech foods that provided more healthful fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

“G.M.O.’s have been an issue for some time now,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group. “We are once again seeing more American adults concerned than not. I expect the market to follow these concerns.”

Action by the F.D.A. on this issue would be welcome. Hyperbole has been a hallmark of the debate regarding what is natural, and the safety of bioengineered ingredients. A clear definition grounded in science would give food and beverage companies direction and consumers a point of reference regarding what is considered natural.
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