Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What does "natural" really mean?

The term "natural" on labels for food products within USDA's jurisdiction has been controversial for many years. Here is CSPI's May 2007 summary (.pdf) of efforts to change the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service's (FSIS) definition of the term “natural” on fresh poultry labels:
Currently, approximately thirty percent of all fresh chicken sold to consumers in the U.S. has been pumped-up (either through injection or vacuum tumbling) with a significant percentage of water, sodium, binding agents like carrageenan (a seaweed extract), and other additives. Yet under current FSIS policy, this pumped-up chicken is being labeled as 100% Natural.
The issue has won recent major media attention, including blog coverage in January, a Washington Post article last fall, and CBS evening news coverage in November.

In part, the issue is in the media because chicken businesses that really do use the term "natural" in a somewhat more restrictive sense have put money into public relations and lobbying, to press USDA for closer oversight. (Sigh. Is this really what progress requires?)

The Truthful Labeling Coalition (see image below), a coalition of some public interest folks and parts of the poultry industry, has been pressing hard on the salt water injections, and also on questions about whether some competitors' poultry is incorrectly labeled "raised without antibiotics." From the fact sheet they sent by email this week:
Under federal law, the USDA is required to ensure that food labels are neither false nor misleading.

Consumers certainly don’t expect poultry labeled “Raised Without Antibiotics” to have been fed or treated with any type of medicine classified as an antibiotic.

In the past year, the USDA has unfortunately made a series of inconsistent and contradictory decisions on fresh poultry labels relating to the use of ionophores – a substance added to chicken feed to help fight disease that both the USDA and FDA consider to be an antibiotic. For example, some poultry companies who use ionophores in chicken feed have mistakenly received approval from USDA for labels bearing the “Raised Without Antibiotics” claim.
The coalition says it doesn't oppose ionophores per se, but it just wants them labeled correctly as antibiotics. The ionophores themselves can be "good or bad," the coalition says.

Industry divisions over food labeling rules are common, and this type of public information campaign in cooperation with public interest groups happens occasionally. But there are risks from the perspective of participating poultry producers, even if they really do produce chickens that are somewhat closer to natural. Within the public's short attention span, it is difficult to tar one's opponents without having some of the feathers stick to one's own skin, so to speak.


Anonymous said...

Regarding your prior post I found this statement from the Corn Refiners Association, dated April 2:

WASHINGTON, DC – A comment today by a single Food & Drug Administration employee regarding whether High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is “natural” was mistakenly portrayed by an online news outlet as the official position of the agency, but actually reflects only the personal view of that one employee who was responding to a reporter’s question.

In fact, the official FDA position on products made with HFCS is unchanged, and those products can be described as “natural” under current regulations. The Food & Drug Administration Regulations clearly state that a comment by an employee does not constitute an advisory opinion and does not obligate or commit the agency to the views expressed.

HFCS, like table sugar and honey, is natural. It is made from corn, a natural grain product. HFCS contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA’s requirements for the use of the term “natural.”
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21 C.F.R. 10.85(k) states: A statement made or advice provided by an FDA employee constitutes an advisory opinion only if it is issued in writing under this section. A statement or advice given by an FDA employee orally, or given in writing but not under this section or 10.90, is an informal communication that represents the best judgment of that employee at that time but does not constitute an advisory opinion, does not necessarily represent the formal position of FDA, and does not bind or otherwise obligate or commit the agency to the views expressed.

Unknown said...
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