What does the term ‘natural’ mean when used on food product labels?
The Federal Food and Drug Administration ("FDA"), is the United States’ primary consumer protection agency, began with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act and currently operates pursuant to the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The FDA was created, in part, to give the United States governmental oversight and control over food production and branding, and to curtail widespread unsanitary practices after the public outcry about the meatpacking industry that was exposed by Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle.
Today, the FDA remains responsible for protecting the public’s health by regulating the vast majority of our food supply - around 80% of the products distributed in the U.S., including all processed foods such as cereals, snacks, and beverages. Included is the mandate to ensure products are properly labeled by current regulations that define food terms. The health food industry has increased dramatically in the past 20 years with growing consumer demand for natural products. Significantly, domestic food products that contain the label “natural” represented over $40 billion in sales in 2013 alone according to Nielsen ratings. To date, however, the FDA has declined to define the term “natural” or any of its derivatives commonly used by companies in today’s market: “100% Natural,” “All Natural,” “100% all natural ingredients,” “only natural ingredients,” and “made with all natural ingredients.” Consequently, domestic food manufacturers misleadingly label products “natural” that in fact contain processed items. Instead of regulating the term, the FDA provides some non-binding guidance on how to use the term “natural” saying it “has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm214868.htm.
Without any clear regulations in place, food manufacturers are able to self-regulate what products can be labeled “natural.” Often the result is products misleadingly labeled as “natural” on the packaging while they contain chemically processed substances such as thiamine mononitrate, genetically engineered substances, artificial ingredients, and a host of other unnatural ingredients contained in cereals, chips, cookies and beverages to name a few. Consumers, duped by these false labels, have pursued litigation with mixed results.
Consumer advocacy groups and judges have asked the FDA provide a uniform definition of the term “natural.” Finally, last fall for the second time in its history, the FDA invited the public to provide it information and comments on the use of the term “natural” in the labeling of human food products, and extended its comment period until May 10, 2016, after the Institute of Food Technologists and others requested more time to comment. Several thousand comments were received before the deadline. The FDA has indicated that it will read all information and comments received before determining whether to finally define “natural” and appropriate use of the term on food product labels. The next step is to wait and see what guidance, if any, the FDA will provide. In the meantime, some consumers and food manufacturers have agreed to put their cases on hold while the FDA is considering whether to define “natural.” Similarly, some courts have decided to do the same pending the FDA’s review. Some other courts have allowed cases against food manufacturers to go forward.
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About Barbara Rohr
Barbara Rohr is a partner with the firm’s Los Angeles office and focuses her practice on complex civil litigation on behalf of consumers in the area of consumer fraud.