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Making a Federal Case Out of Mother Nature

The term "natural" boasts more than a dozen accepted definitions in most standard dictionaries. Yet when it comes to defining the term for the food industry, food and beverage marketers, consumers, consumer activists and the federal government all seem to define the term in different ways.

Presently, two federal agencies, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) are both independently working to come up with a definition that will balance these competing interests.

Such a move has become increasingly important as thousands of items that boast of being "natural" or of being made with "all-natural ingredients" have entered the market, a trend driven by the term's resonance with consumers and its loose legal definition.

Inevitably, the move to firm up "natural's" definition has generated considerable controversy.

For example, about a year ago, Cadbury Schweppes started labelling its popular 7-Up carbonated beverage "all natural" and only recently agreed to modify that claim after threats of a lawsuit from consumer groups charging deceptive advertising.

The primary bone of contention: the presence of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Manufacturers maintain that corn syrup is a natural product coming from a natural source (corn). Critics counter that the process by which HFCS is derived from corn is artificial, and that, as a result, it cannot be "natural."

By current FDA definitions, both sides have a point. FDA's policy simply states that food can be considered "natural" if "nothing artificial or synthetic" has been added that would not normally be expected in that food. The terms "artificial" and "synthetic"—not to mention what one might "expect" or not expect to find in soft drinks—remain undefined.

However, that may soon change. About a year ago, the Sugar Association filed a petition with FDA, requesting a clear definition for the use of the term "natural" on food and beverage product labels FDA regulates. The Sugar Association wants a definition similar to the one USDA already requires for meat and poultry products: that theycan only carry a "natural" claim if they contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients, and if they are "minimally processed."

Ironically, that definition is also under review. Last summer, USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) was petitioned by Hormel Foods to modify its rules to account for changes in manufacturing techniques and consumer perceptions since this original definition was adopted back in 1982. The policy had allowed for exceptions decided on a case-by-case basis, and the petition claimed that this resulted in inconsistent guidance that let some manufacturers manipulate the definition, undermining consumer confidence.

In 1982, "minimally processed" was understood to mean "traditional" techniques like smoking, roasting, freezing, drying and fermenting, or physical processes "Grandma could do in her kitchen" (yes, that was USDA's terminology) that did not "fundamentally" alter raw product. These included such processes as cutting up a chicken, grinding beef into hamburger, pressing fruits to make juices, etc..

More severe processes—acid hydrolysis, chemical bleaching, etc.—were generally regarded as outside the bounds of the definition, though FSIS did acknowledge that there could be exceptions that would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

In 2005, FSIS made a blanket exception for sugar, sodium lactate and certain natural flavorings used as additives.

Sodium lactate, a substance often injected into lean cuts of meat to tenderize them and make them more resistant to pathogens, proved especially controversial. While the substance is naturally present in muscle meat in small amounts, Hormel's petition centered on whether it was proper to label meat "natural" when large amounts of it were introduced into the meat artificially.

FSIS decided that the sodium lactate question was one of several unresolved issues related to "natural" labeling and last June decided to tackle them all in what is now a formal, ongoing rulemaking process.

To be addressed: whether existing rules are outdated given new technologies; whether consumer expectations about what is "natural" and "minimally processed" have changed; and whether a too-strict focus on minimal processing compromises food safety by discouraging manufacturers from using state-of-the-art processes in order to qualify for the highly desirable "natural" label.

FSIS's deadline for public commentary ended on March 5. Its next step was unclear at FM press time. Stay tuned.

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