WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2015 - The public debate over labeling food as “natural” when it contains genetically modified ingredients is about to heat up before the FDA can even finish collecting public feedback.

Representing the processed food and beverage industry, the Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 to both set standards for companies to label products as “natural” and make sure those labels are available for food that contain GMOs.

So far the process is moving the way GMA had hoped. The FDA announced in November it is considering the group’s request and put out a call for public feedback on the plan for a more defined standard of what can be labeled “natural.” Responding to calls from groups like GMA and the North American Meat Institute, FDA extended the deadline for feedback from Feb. 10 to May 10 to give the public more time to comment.

But opponents are gearing up for a loud and long fight.

Groups like Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch and the Environmental Working Group say there is nothing natural about ingredients such as corn, soybeans or sugar that were grown from seeds that were engineered in a laboratory.

In just a couple weeks, Consumers Union will be spotlighting the proposed label rules in its magazine and highlighting seven food or beverage products that are labeled “natural,” said the group’s Urvashi Rangan.

The magazine article, together with a social media campaign planned for after the issue is released, will be all about “products that claim one way or another to be natural and why there are questionable things about it … especially when you look at it in concert with our survey data,” said Rangan.

A previous Consumers Union survey showed that 64 percent of people believed that if a product was labeled “natural” it meant that there were no GMO ingredients. Rangan said that’s the basis for why the group believes the label should be either banned altogether or the rules governing it should make it even more restrictive than organic.

But the group’s preference is an all-out ban on labeling products “natural,” and that will be the main thrust of Consumers Union’s public comment when it submits one, officials said. Too many people see “natural” and think “organic,” Rangan said.

And FDA recognizes that as a potential problem. The agency, in its request for comment, asked: “Is the term ‘natural’ on food labels perceived by consumers the same way as ‘organic?’ Or is ‘natural’ perceived by consumers to be ‘better’ (or not as good as) ‘organic?’”

While Consumers Union won’t divulge specifics about the upcoming magazine article, a spokeswoman said it will highlight food products that “make natural claims that fail to meet consumer expectations, as measured by multiple national surveys conducted by Consumer Reports. The examples contain artificial or GM ingredients or they were processed with synthetic chemicals.”

Consumers Union will be making the loudest protest, but the group is far from alone. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, said she and others will be doing their best to lobby FDA and call attention to the issue in the coming months.

So far, though, GMA is content to let the FDA consider public feedback and work on a proposed rule to define “natural.”

“FDA’s decision to accept comments on a definition of ‘natural’ in food labeling is a welcome and necessary step towards having a common national standard that consumers can rely on regardless of where they live or shop,” spokesman Brian Kennedy said. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned the FDA for action on a natural definition and is pleased the agency is moving forward.”

And the group sees no problem in getting the agency to agree to the conclusion that GMO ingredients are indeed natural because it’s a conclusion the agency already holds.

“The regulation requested through this petition is a logical step for the FDA to take to reinforce its longstanding position that there is no material difference between foods derived from biotechnology and their traditionally bred counterparts,” Kennedy said.

“Corn is corn regardless of the plant breeding technique,” GMA said in its 2014 FDA petition.

The FDA, in a 1992 statement of policy that remains the agency’s position, said, “In most cases, the substances expected to become components of food as a result of genetic modification of a plant will be the same as or substantially similar to substances commonly found in food, such as proteins, fats and oils, and carbohydrates.”

While it may appear the FDA is more aligned with GMA’s position, opponent groups say the public is on their side.

And there’s a lot at stake, Lovera said. A label that puts federal weight behind the idea that GMOs are natural undermines the national organics standards and the organic label, she said.

Currently, the FDA doesn’t restrict the use of the word “natural” on a label except on products that contain artificial coloring and flavors and “synthetic substance.”

It took years for the organic sector to get the federal government to agree to definitions for what food is organic, she said. “And then next to them on the shelf is something that consumers might think is better because it says ‘natural’ on it. It’s a real problem and FDA’s been ignoring it for a long time.” And while they have been ignoring it, she said, consumers have been trusting in a “natural” label that means very little.


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