Food producers battling over 'natural' designation

Associated Press | 8/7/2009, 9:58 a.m.

Reich says the issue “has profound competitive consequences. Certain companies — sometimes whole sectors of a whole industry — will be advantaged or disadvantaged by how agencies define words that may appear in labels.”

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Agriculture Department both say they are weighing how to move forward.

The FDA generally allows foods to be labeled as “natural” if such a claim is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said. Agriculture Department policy roughly mirrors the FDA’s, though it adds that “natural” meat and poultry products cannot be more than minimally processed.

That’s not good enough for industry.

The Sugar Association, in a February 2006 FDA petition seeking clarity on the issue, claims the original chemical state of sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup — made by its arch rivals — is altered so significantly during processing that “the allowance of a ‘natural’ claim is exceedingly misleading,” trade group president and CEO Andrew Briscoe III wrote the agency. The group represents producers of sucrose, made from sugar beets and cane.

The Corn Refiners Association fired back in opposition, saying the sugar industry’s claim would draw an unjustified and inconsistent distinction between sucrose and the high-fructose corn syrup its member companies make — and which presumably would no longer be considered “natural.”

“The Sugar Association’s petition is a thinly veiled attempt to obtain a marketing advantage for sucrose over [high-fructose corn syrup],” Corn Refiners president Audrae Erickson said in November 2006 comments to the FDA.

Meanwhile, in October 2006, Hormel Foods Corp., the maker of Farmer John and other brands, filed its own “natural” petition with the Agriculture Department, seeking in short to outlaw any natural claim on luncheon and other meats that contain sodium lactate.

The corn-derived additive is used as a flavoring and preservative. Only when a meat product uses sodium lactate as a flavoring, however, can it still be considered for a “natural” label, said Laura Reiser, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department’s food safety and inspection service, citing a recent department decision.

“The change in the definition of ‘natural’ creates an exception for sodium lactate that misleads consumers who believe they are buying a product free of chemical preservatives, when they are not,” Hormel spokeswoman Julie Craven said.

In January 2007, in clarifying remarks filed with the USDA in support of Hormel’s petition, the Sugar Association’s Briscoe weighed in and said providing a precise definition of what’s natural “would help eliminate misleading competitive practices” — a clear swipe at his corn syrup competitors.

Sugar produced from sugar beets and cane has lost ground to high-fructose corn syrup, which now accounts for a majority of the sweeteners shipped to the food and beverage industry, according to USDA statistics.

Sara Lee Corp. then followed in April 2007 with a petition to the FDA that presses that agency to define “natural” in a way consistent with the USDA. The Sara Lee petition also makes a case for considering sodium lactate “natural.” The company’s Hillshire Farms brand, for example, uses sodium lactate as an ingredient.

“Natural preservatives, such as sodium lactate sourced from corn, are derived from plants, animals, and/or microflora and, thus, are ‘natural’ ingredients,” its petition reads in part.

Hormel fired back in late September, filing a lawsuit that seeks a court order in part to force the USDA to rescind past approvals of “natural” labels on meat and poultry products that use sodium lactate as a preservative.

“The ‘natural’ thing has always been such a morass,” said Urvashi Rangan, a Consumers Union senior scientist and policy analyst.

(Associated Press)