Are GMOs a “Natural” Food?

| December 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

The FDA may think so. Action Alert!

Last week, the FDA announced that it would be accepting public input on how—or whether—to define the term “natural” on food labels. This action came about as a result of a number of petitions filed by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) and Consumers Union.

The GMA asked the FDA to redefine “natural” so that foods derived from biotechnology (read: GMO foods) could use the label, while Consumers Union separately filed a petition asking the FDA to prohibit the use of “natural” on food labels altogether since the term is vague and misleading to consumers.

The Consumers Union petition to the FDA is based on data from a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey. According to the survey, nearly 90% of consumers expect “natural” on a food label to mean much more than it does. About two-thirds of consumers thought that “natural” meant that no pesticides, GMOs, or chemicals were used in food carrying the label. Currently, however, the FDA’s policy is that it won’t object to a product sporting the word “natural” so long as it doesn’t contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The FDA is asking for public input on a variety of questions revolving around which foods should be allowed to bear the term “natural” and what kinds of things—such as processing and different manufacturing methods—should bar a food from being called “natural.”

ANH-USA has staunchly defended the right of consumers to have access to information regarding food and supplements, and has vehemently opposed efforts by federal agencies to gag free speech about the benefits of natural products (see, for example, the next article in this week’s Pulse). The problem with the current “natural” label, however, is that it is so loosely defined that it confers little to no actual meaning, while the presence of the label dupes consumers into buying food they believe is healthy and truly natural but contains all sorts of non-natural ingredients and processing.

It might be worth trying to rework a definition of “natural” that is rigorous and provides useful information to consumers, but unfortunately this seems like a lost cause. The “organic” label is much more constraining than the “natural” label, and we’ve seen how even that definition is constantly threatened by Big Food. There’s no reason to think the case would be different with the much looser “natural” label. The GMA petition is a case in point—what meaning does the label have if genetically manipulated foods doused with herbicide can be called “natural”?

The FDA and other federal agencies are too open to crony influence from industry to be trusted to create a definition of “natural” that has public health—rather than industry profits—as its motivating force. We can imagine the flood of comments from Big Food companies looking for exemptions for their products. Therefore, we agree with Consumers Union that the “natural” label should be banned outright.

This may all be theatrics anyway—a ploy by the FDA to make it look like it is doing something substantive when it actually plans to punt on this issue yet again. When the FDA first considered defining “natural” in 1991, the agency similarly asked for public input to help them reach a definition of the term. After reviewing the submissions, the agency said “none of the comments provided FDA with a specific direction to follow for developing a definition regarding use of the term ‘natural.’”

Action Alert! Write to the FDA and tell them that the “natural” label is confusing to consumers and should be abandoned. Please send your message immediately.

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Filed Under: FDA News

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