CNG's Comments to FDA re: "Natural" on Food

Posted on May 16, 2016

Thanks to everyone who responded to our calls to submit comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the use of "natural" on food products. (Find background information here on this earlier blog post.) This is a hot topic about which FDA received more than 4,000 comments.

Certified Naturally Grown also weighed in. We are pleased to share with you the comments we submitted to FDA. (Want to be notified of other ag policy issue concerning CNG? You may subscribe here to receive periodic updates from us.)

Read below our comments to FDA! 

May 10, 2016

Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305)
Food and Drug Administration
5360 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061
Rockville, MD 20852

Docket No. FDA-2014-N-1207 

Submitted electronically via www.regulations.gov

RE: Use of the Term “Natural” in the Labeling of Human Food Products; Requests for Information and Comments

On behalf of the farmers and beekeepers of Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), and our broader community of customers and supporters, we submit the following response to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) request for information and comments on the use of the term “natural” in the labeling of human food products.

In particular, we submit comments on whether and how FDA should regulate the term “natural” with respect to production practices, and in labeling foods that are genetically engineered (GE) or contain GE, synthetic, or non-food ingredients. Our position is in strong alignment with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) of which CNG is a participating member. We appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on this issue.

Certified Naturally Grown offers certification to farmers and beekeepers producing food for their local communities according to clearly defined and transparent standards for sustainable agriculture. More than 800 producers in 47 states currently participate in our certification programs. Since CNG’s founding fourteen years ago, more than 4,800 producers have applied for certification. Only a portion of applications submitted are accepted, and only portion of those accepted producers go on to complete the certification process. CNG certification is a badge of honor for those who have earned this designation.

The CNG label signifies that the food was produced without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds. CNG farmers work with natural systems to enhance productivity, flavor, and biodiversity. There are detailed standards for each of our programs (Produce, Livestock, Apiary, Aquaponics, and soon Mushrooms) that address the ecological considerations unique to each type of production. These standards are publicly available on the CNG website, along with a searchable directory of all CNG producers.

Certified Naturally Grown recognizes the value of a variety of terms to move our food system down a more sustainable path. As such, we have a strong interest in ensuring consistent, rigorous, and truthful use of food labels, particularly the term “natural.” Thank you for your consideration of the comments below.

Sincerely,

Alice Varon

 

Alice Varon

Executive Director 

I. Overview
The marked growth in the organic sector is just one indication of dramatically increased consumer demand for food that is produced without synthetic chemicals or genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, and thus perceived to be more wholesome. This growth in demand has been met with a proliferation of unverified claims. Processed food companies in particular have taken liberties with the term natural, deploying it with little restraint, often gaining an undeserved marketing advantage, and misleading customers.

This situation warrants additional action by FDA to protect the credibility of the term. However, the word “natural” must be preserved for appropriate use by CNG producers, other farmers, and food artisans within local and regional food systems. Furthermore, any regulatory actions by FDA should address the use of the term on processed foods, but generally refrain from regulating the word with respect to production practices. The problem is with the processed food industry, not farmers. 

II. Misuse of Natural

A 2015 Consumer Reports National Research Center survey found that consumers want stringent standards for natural labels on meat, poultry, and processed foods. Furthermore, many consumers assume that the natural label on packaged and processed foods “currently means that no pesticides, artificial ingredients, artificial chemicals, or genetically modified ingredients were used; and an even greater amount of consumers feel that this labeling should indicate this.”[1]

In reality, FDA’s current policy doesn’t restrict the term natural except for added color, synthetic substances, and flavors. Furthermore, FDA’s policy is “not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of genetic engineering or other forms of genetic modification, the use of pesticides, or the use of specific animal husbandry practices, nor [does] it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.”[2] 

When consumers discover that their assumptions about the meaning of “natural” on processed foods don’t match the actual qualities of those products, it understandably results in skepticism and suspicion toward any use of this term. Reluctance to trust “natural” harms the producers who are using it with integrity.

III. Preserving Natural

We call on FDA to place greater restrictions on the use of the term “natural” in order to 1) better comply with consumer expectations, and 2) protect the integrity and value of this term for food producers and processors who are using “natural” responsibly. Furthermore, FDA should institute robust enforcement against companies that use the term to market their food products in ways that don’t conform with common and reasonable expectations. It’s misleading and deceptive to use the term “natural” on processed foods that contain artificial, non-food ingredients and processing aids. 

Furthermore, consumers generally expect that the term “natural” on food signifies “non-GMO”: ie., genetically engineered (GE) ingredients are not used at any stage of production. FDA should prohibit use of the term “natural” on any food produced using GE technology or containing ingredients that are produced with genetic engineering.

At the same time, we do not support the petition to FDA that calls for a ban on the term “natural.” It is a word in the English language that is often used credibly and meaningfully, particularly within local and regional food systems. The word is part of our organization’s name, and for our members it signifies that they have gone through a rigorous certification process. Responsible food producers and businesses, in sum, should not have to pay for the deceptive practices of food marketers that remain largely unconstrained by FDA policy. We therefore adamantly oppose that the word “natural” be banned on foods. 

IV. A Plea for Clarity

We further believe that FDA should encourage the use of labels that are easily understood and meaningful. For example, FDA should promote the use of terms on processed foods such as “no artificial colors, ingredients or flavors” and “non-GMO” that have clear and transparent meanings.

This approach is preferable to attempting a comprehensive definition of a term like “natural.” For such a super-label to be meaningful, it would mainly replicate the significance of the organic label. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards for food processing and production were based on years of consultation with farmers and industry, providing great opportunity for public dialogue, and ultimately leading to authorizing legislation. Therefore, we oppose any federal definition of the term “natural” in the absence of such a process. Even then, we would question its merits given the existence of the NOP 

V. Food Processing, not Production

The expertise and authority of FDA is suited to regulating food processing claims, rather than agricultural production claims, which are within the USDA's purview. It would be inappropriate for FDA to take any steps to ban or regulate the use of the term “natural” with respect to agricultural production claims, i.e. “naturally grown”, with the exception of ensuring that foods produced using GE technology or containing GE ingredients are not permitted to be labeled as “natural”.

In closing, we assert that the successful and long-established programs of Certified Naturally Grown should not be disrupted by any regulatory actions taken by FDA. Nor should FDA’s policies on “natural” disrupt the continued use of the term by local and regional food producers who use the term responsibly in marketing their products.


[1] “Natural Food Labels Survey: 2015 Nationally-Representative Phone Survey” http://consumerreports.org/content/dam/cro/magazine-articles/2016/March/Consumer_Reports_Natural_Food_Labels_Survey_2015.pdf

[2] 80 Federal Register 69906

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