After years of litigation and controversy around use of the term "natural" on food labels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now seeking comments on the issue. This action has important implications for companies facing related litigation or using "natural" labeling.
FDA announced yesterday that it will accept comments beginning on November 12, 2015, on the use of the term "natural" in the labeling of human food products.
To date, FDA has declined to establish a formal definition for "natural" and has instead relied on a policy it outlined in 1993 that "natural" means nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.
According to FDA, the agency is now taking this step "because of the changing landscape of food ingredients and production, and in direct response to consumers who have requested that the FDA explore the use of the term ‘natural’." As FDA recognizes in its announcement, FDA has received Citizen Petitions from industry and consumer organizations asking the agency to define or limit the term, and numerous federal courts have requested administrative determinations from FDA regarding whether the term can be used on foods with certain ingredients (e.g., high fructose corn syrup or ingredients from genetically engineered plants).
FDA is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service to also examine the use of the term "natural" in meat, poultry and egg products.
Implications for Food Companies
The potential implications of FDA’s action in this area may be far reaching.
- Companies currently defending lawsuits challenging "natural" on labels may consider seeking a stay of litigation pending FDA’s final action.
- Brands with "natural" labeling may want to evaluate whether continued use of the term makes sense with an FDA definition now a possibility, though likely years away, or to begin transitioning to new label formats and claims.
- Plaintiffs’ lawyers will likely shift their focus to challenging other label terms and claims.
Participating in the Comment Process
The industry should take an active role in the comments process. FDA specifically asks for information and public comment on questions such as:
- Whether it is appropriate to define the term "natural."
- If so, how the agency should define "natural."
- How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.
FDA is accepting public comments for 90 days beginning on November 12, 2015. To electronically submit comments to the docket, visit this page and type FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box.