WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 - Leading consumer advocates and environmental groups are pushing the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit the use of the term “natural” on food products or at least require them to meet the same standards as organic foods. 

FDA “has the clear authority and responsibility to ban the use of the term ‘natural’” as false and misleading, the groups say in a filing that is among thousands of comments provided to the agency on use of the term.

The comments show a sharp split between the consumer and environmental groups and the conventional food industry, and also between the conventional industry and organic food companies as well as between the consumer advocates and the organic sector. 

FDA, acting in response to conflicting petitions filed by the Consumers Union, Grocery Manufacturers Association and other groups, sought public and industry comment on how the term should be defined, including whether biotech ingredients should be permitted. 

FDA doesn’t have an official definition of natural, but the agency’s longstanding policy is that natural means that the products don’t include artificial or synthetic ingredients. The policy doesn’t exclude any production methods, including the use of pesticides or GMOs.

GMA wants FDA to set a clear, but limited, definition of “natural” that the group says is needed to alleviate confusion and ensure consistency across the industry. The definition should allow for “acceptable post-harvest processing and production methods” including biotechnology, GMA told FDA. 

“The lack of a regulatory definition has led to widespread industry and consumer confusion, and consumer mistrust,” GMA said. 

The group also said the definition should be distinct from requirements for organic foods and “balance the weight of consumer perception with the realities of current manufacturing practices, maintenance of food safety and public health, and consideration for future food processing technologies.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization specifically appealed to FDA to allow the use of GMOs in products labeled as natural. 

“Genetic engineering should not be a defining factor because it would be inconsistent with FDA’s longstanding position that genetic engineering is merely an extension of traditional breeding,” the Farm Bureau wrote. “All breeding methods, including genetic engineering, modify DNA, a naturally occurring component of the plant. Nothing synthetic or artificial is introduced.”

BIO argued, “If natural means the absence of human influence, then no agricultural or food production activity is natural; all agriculture, and all human foods, bear the mark of human innovation, human intervention, or human choice.”

Consumers Union was joined by the Consumer Federation of America, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club in arguing for a ban on the term. Barring that, FDA should set strict standards that would be checked for compliance by independent certifiers, much as the federal organic standards operate, the groups said. 

Moreover, “to align the natural label with consumer expectations, the FDA should require all food labeled 'natural' to also be certified organic, as a baseline,” the groups said. Organic standards bar the use of genetically engineered seeds and the use of synthetic pesticides. 

The Organic Trade Association said the FDA’s definition would have a “real” impact on organic foods and should be severely restricted. The term should have to be accompanied by a statement explaining its meaning, such as “Natural – no artificial flavors or colors,” the group says.

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In a clear break from the consumer advocates, OTA opposes aligning the use of natural with organic standards. Using production standards for defining natural would create duplication with the National Organic Program and “potentially create interagency regulatory conflict, and only create increased consumer confusion.” 

OTA also expressed doubt that standards for natural could be policed properly.

Like GMA, the International Dairy Foods Association said an FDA definition was needed to address confusion and “provide needed direction to the industry.” 

IDFA also said that the agency should continue to allow the longstanding practice of using the term “natural cheese” to mean cheeses made directly from milk, distinguishing them from products derived  from processed cheeses.

The American Food Industry Association, National Grain and Feed Association and Pet Food Institute filed joint comments urging FDA to allow GMOs to qualify as natural.