Interestingly, just as the natural foods industry appears to be booming, one key issue has been neglected: there’s no concrete definition of what exactly constitutes “natural.” The fault can be attributed to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has yet to develop an official rule establishing what constitutes “natural” food. While the FDA has an informal policy statement governing use of the term, the agency has never formally issued a definition. This vacuum means that every manufacturer must determine the “naturalness” of its products on a case-by-case basis.
Since the 1970s, federal agencies have attempted to define “natural” as it relates to food. First up was the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in charge of regulating false and misleading advertising. In 1974, the commission proposed a rule establishing “natural” foods to be those that were minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients. But the FTC officially terminated its rulemaking on the matter in 1983.
In 1991, the FDA took up the matter, noting that the use of “natural” on food labels is of considerable interest to consumers and the industry. Two years later, however, the agency had made little progress.
So, where does this leave us retailers? As the demand for “natural” products continues to grow, the FDA will undoubtedly be pressured again to provide a uniform, clear and enforceable policy for the moniker of “natural.” The only question is, When? Until the FDA adopts a formal rule defining “natural,” courts and manufacturers will fill the vacuum and inconsistently decide what the term “natural” means. While a final ruling will undoubtedly require the FDA to incur costly challenges, only a mandated definition, identifying conditions and use, and specific labeling requirements for “natural” claims will offset the patchy use and confusion regarding the term.
The bottom line: until the food retail industry standardizes a definition of “natural” food, consumers will continue to be confused and frustrated.