May 15, 2013

“All Natural” has become one of the most used on-pack food and beverage claims, and many marketers covet it as one of the most valuable. The question before us: “Is it about to become invisible?” By invisible, we mean meaningless to shoppers.

The “All Natural” claim was meant to be meaningful - but isn’t from a regulatory standpoint. There is no unified federal definition, and there’s a lack of standards, for the label “Natural” or “All Natural.” The FDA has yet to define the claim, but does not object to it appearing on a label if a food does not contain “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” “Natural” is clearly perceived by some brand managers as being a very important claim. Its lack of definition in itself makes “natural” controversial – as the perception by consumers is that it’s “better” in some way than products that do not carry the claim. The future could be dim for “natural” in the marketplace as shoppers pay attention to the nutritional facts panel and the ingredients on the labels. (Lempert Commentary) Until the claim is defined, it’s open to be defined in a varying and sometimes manipulative way. As a result, it is possible that the government will step in and standardize the definition but there are issues that need to be addressed. 

There is no definition of it. 

According to the FDA, “It is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” If so, some may question if the term should be prohibited from use altogether. The USDA definition of ‘natural’ for meat and poultry states, “The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (no artificial ingredients; minimally processed).” The USDA took a stand in 2009 hoping to define natural with the AMS and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). As of January of 2012, FSIS proposed to develop a ”codified ‘natural’ definition that clearly articulates the criteria that meat and poultry products must meet to qualify to be labeled as ‘natural’ which will make the Agency's approval of ‘natural’ claims more transparent and will allow the Agency to review labels that contain ‘natural’ claims in a more efficient and consistent manner.” In 2013, all the USDA offered was aDraft Guidance stating that “natural” is a synonym for “non-synthetic” which will be used in the ever-growing natural claims litigations for food and dietary supplements. 

Where has the government enforced action? 

The FDA issues warning letters to products that are in violation of the FFDCA, calling out Alexia Foods in 2011 for marketing a number of their foods as “All Natural” but containingdisodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate. Other organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest take enforcement into their own hands by writing letters to products outlining how they see their products as misleading consumers with the use of the term “natural”; a violation of misbranding within Section 403 of the FFDCA act. They copied the FDA on these company specific letters but received a response that “correcting ‘natural’ claims was not part of the FDA’s enforcement priorities.” If you have a law and it is not enforced, its impact is greatly diminished.  

In its Food Label Standards Policy Book August 2005 the USDA requires products to apply for approval of a “natural” claim but there is little to no enforcement from the FDA. Mike Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food, told The Atlantic, “We have no pre-market review authority over such claims, and, under prevailing legal doctrines concerning ‘commercial free speech,’ the evidentiary requirements placed on FDA to prove that such claims are misleading are significant and costly to meet.” (Even more so now and in the foreseeable future with the budget cuts affecting both USDA and FDA operations.) The Atlantic article shows the FDA’s focus on healthy diets and the fight against obesity as a bigger priority than mislabeling.   

One consideration is that if there isn’t a consistent application of the term “natural” or responsible definition of what it means, it’s open forum for a group or a local municipality to define it. It’s noteworthy that on the biotech labeling initiatives (CA ballot initiative 37) in 2012, the language targeted products containing biotech as not being “natural.” Some felt this was a way to encourage manufacturers to avoid sourcing biotech ingredients. Those that valued the claim would have additional incentives to avoid such ingredients because sourcing them would require process labeling and prevent them from claiming the product was “natural.” 

Retailers, Brand Managers and Manufacturers: Understanding the impact of “Natural” claims

There is no trade association for “natural”; a gathering place for conversations about “natural” between the factions of the food industry. Closest to it is the Natural Products Association, which has created its own criteria for “natural” and but only approves home and personal care products that meet these standards (not foods or beverages).Brand managers market products that say “All Natural” because they see the value in the term. Based on what is submitted to the USDA between 2003 and 2010, the amount of new products claiming to be “natural” has increased from 1380 to 2145 new product introductions each year. “Natural,” in fact, claims 8.4% of total products introduced, higher than “organic” at 3.2% and “low fat” at 2.8%. Mintel shows new product introductions in 2012 carrying the claim of “natural” at 11.81 % compared to “organic” at 6.35%. Lynn Dornblaser of Mintel explains that, ”When we look at the claims that food & drink products have in the US market overall, we see a general decline in use of any claims. This suggests that companies are more careful or conservative with the claims they put on products.” While use of the “organic” claim is lower because of strict certification rule, the “natural” claim percentage shows that marketers understand the value of the “natural” claim to consumers. (Strauss Commentary)

This affects organic grain farmers. According to a report by the Cornucopia Institute, “Multiple manufacturers have switched a considerable share of their products from ‘organic’ to ‘natural’. Simultaneously, organic grain farmers have noticed a drop in demand for organic crops, accompanied by a drop in prices for these crops.” The report also states, “The role of decreased demand for organic cereal grain by companies that switched from ‘organic’ to ‘natural’ cannot be underestimated.”

Will the public eventually require a definition?

The Hartman Group concludes that customers remain engaged in “organic” and “natural.” They issued their Beyond Organic and Natural Syndicated Study Overview in 2010 stating “Consumers see ‘natural’ as a marketing term, meaningless alone, which may encourage them to investigate the product more, but is not enough by itself. When products labeled ‘natural’ and/or ‘organic’ are clearly not healthy (e.g., high in fat, sugar or sodium and low in nutrients) consumer skepticism grows.” When more reports emerge, such as The Canada Organic Trade Association White Paper on consumer confusion between “natural" and “organic,” a consumer will see that a “natural” loaf of bread is made with grain grown with pesticides, and costs as much to make as a conventional loaf of bread. The White Paper references a survey (Shelton, 2009), concluding that when consumers were asked, “Which is the best product description to read on a label?” Americans chose “natural” over “organic” with 31% choosing “100% Natural” versus just 14 % choosing “100% Organic.” (Dan Donovan, Giant Eagle Commentary)

Shoppers may be frustrated with why they are spending more for the so-called “natural” claim. Despite the fact that for some consumers “natural” has become a cheaper alternative to “organic” through the economic downturn, cost-conscious consumers may focus their attention back on the true “natural” meaning, “looking at ingredients and nutrition statements and making their own decisions about products,” adds Mintel’s Lynn Dornblaser. “Allied to this, especially regarding the ‘All Natural’ claim, is growing consumer skepticism regarding what companies say about their products. Moving forward, look for the ‘All Natural’ claim to continue to decline.”

There is little doubt that until there is a definition of “All Natural” there will be confusion in the marketplace, and shoppers may well be the losers in terms of both improving their diets and wasting money. (Mitsuru Shimizu, Cornell Food & Brand Lab Commentary)