From the Desk of Courtney Thomas: “Natural” Food Labeling

The following is a post from Courtney Thomas, visiting assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, and author of In Food We Trust: The Politics of Purity in American Food Regulation (Nebraska, 2014). 

In the latter half of the 20th century the organic food movement emerged as an alternative to industrialized food production. However, prior to the establishment of the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2002, the designation “organic” had no established or legal meaning. Thus, while consumers cited the avoidance of pesticides, freshness, and health benefits as their reasons for buying organic foods, they had no way of knowing what, if anything, actually made “organic” foods different from “conventional” foods. “Organic” had become a marketing designation which, many argued, deceived consumers by implying that foods were safer or produced with more sustainable farming practices when they were not. The 1990 Organic Food Production Act required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced foods and to assure consumers that foods marketed as “organic” meet consistent, uniform, and transparent standards. To market their food as “organic” using the USDA seal, food producers and processors that gross more than $5,000 per year in organic food sales must be certified by a public organization, such as the USDA Organic Growers Program, or by a publicly accredited private agency, such as PrimusLabs. To fulfill certification requirements, producers must keep meticulous records of their production processes, supply those records to inspectors who conduct on-site investigations, and comply with all regulations established by the National Organic Program.

Organic foods remain a popular and profitable market niche but the NOP regulations have forced food producers to stop marketing conventional foods as “organic.” Although many critical food scholars have valid concerns about the substance of the organic standards (another story for another time), the NOP undoubtedly established a common set of rules for the labeling and marketing of organic foods, one that has been enforced by the USDA and its affiliates. However, this has not necessarily had the public health or consumer impact intended. Instead, producers of conventional foods who are looking to capitalize on consumer demand for healthier, safer, and less processed foods have replaced the “organic” designation with another vague, “feel good,” and unregulated term: “natural.”

What is a “natural” food?  According to the USDA, “natural” foods do not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are minimally processed. “Natural” foods may contain antibiotics or growth hormones, and there is no certification or inspection regime to verify the label information. But the USDA only has regulatory authority over meat and poultry, about 20% of the food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulatory authority over the remaining 80% and it has not yet developed a definition for “natural” foods, but it is in the process of doing so. Historically, the FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that a food was free of artificial or synthetic additives. However, this colloquial definition focused on the end substance of the food, not the production process. Therefore, “natural” foods could be irradiated, genetically modified, or pasteurized, processes some food advocates do not consider “natural” enough. Prompted by consumer protection groups and federal courts, the FDA is now faced with two decisions: first, whether or not to allow food producers to use the term “natural” on food labels at all and, second, if so, how to define “natural” so that consumers have access to the information they need to make educated food choices.

It’s past time for such a regulatory discussion. Research indicates that more than half of consumers seek out products with “natural” on the label, and nearly 66 percent of those did so because they believe that “natural” foods are free of genetically modified ingredients, hormones, pesticides, or acritical additives. Many also believe that “natural” foods should support local farmers, reduce exposure to pesticides, protect the environment from chemical agricultural inputs, and provide better living conditions for animals. But the conventional food industry has different ideas. For example, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an interest group that represents more than 250 of the world’s largest food and beverage companies, told the FDA that the “natural” claim should focus on the degree of processing ingredients have undergone and whether or not those ingredients are synthetic or artificial versus natural. However, it said that farming and agricultural methods used in production, including pesticide or herbicide use, animal husbandry, and genetic modification of seeds, should not be a factor in the “natural” labeling process. Thus, while the GMA supports a common national definition for “natural” foods, it wants to shape that definition in ways that benefit the companies it represents. As we saw with the elaboration of “organic” standards, food labeling is a political process and powerful interests can and often do capture the regulatory process.

This has been the case with food regulation and labeling historically. The first national food safety laws, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act were initially proposed by consumer advocates but were ultimately written and enforced in ways that advantaged the interests of large, industrialized food producers who sought to use regulations to capture the market and force competitors out of business. Many argue that the National Organic Program continued this trend. They maintain that large food producers, like those represented by the GMA, used their political influence to craft regulations that allowed them to coopt the organic market. Moreover, they argue that the costs associated with inspection and certification allow large food producers to force their smaller competitors out of business. The “natural” foods movement emerged in part as a response to the transformation of “organic” foods from a counter food culture movement to a mainstream marketing tool of large food enterprises. If the FDA defines “natural” foods, whether they do it in ways that advantage or disadvantage large conventional food producers, you can guarantee that we’ll soon see new, unregulated labeling statements emerge to capture consumers. In ten years consumers will have moved on from “organic” and “natural” and the FDA will be trying to define “indigenous” or “essential” foods for a new generation of consumers.