Regulatory Update: FDA Seeks Public Comment on Use of "Natural" on Food Labels

Regulatory Update: FDA Seeks Public Comment on Use of "Natural" on Food Labels

November 11, 2015

by RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they are seeking public comment on the use of natural in the labeling of human food. The FDA indicates the impetus for this request are three citizen petitions requesting the agency define natural.  

In background, the FDA does have a longstanding policy for natural, which indicates nothing artificial or synthetic has been added, including all color additives regardless of source, that would not normally be expected in that food. The policy does not address production methods such as the use of pesticides or biotechnology nor does it address food processing or manufacturing methods such as thermal processing or pasteurization.

The USDA, which regulates labeling of products with two percent or more cooked meat or poultry, also has a longstanding policy on use of natural on product labels. This policy indicates no artificial ingredients, coloring or chemical preservatives can be added, and a product called natural cannot be more than minimally processed. The policy indicates minimally processed includes processes that have traditionally been used to make food more edible or preserve it (think smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, fermenting) or physical processes that do not alter the product (think grinding meat, making juice from fruit, separating eggs). As food technology has advanced over time, there has been much debate around the definition of "minimally processed." For example, does the solution injected beneath the skin of chicken preclude it from being called natural? Is baking bread considered more than minimally processed? What about thermal processing?

The top three things you need to know about this FDA action are:

  1. FDA is only seeking public comment, which technically is not even the start of the regulatory process. Before we see regulations specific to use of the term natural, we will see a proposed rule, open comment period, final rule, and then an implementation period. This could be years.
  2. The current action only applies to FDA-regulated products. FDA and USDA harmonize on regulations in some, but not all, cases.
  3. With the consumer interest in "clean label" and "NO" labeling (think no preservatives, no hormones, no antibiotics), this discussion is likely to be broad.

If you or your organization are interested in submitting comments to the FDA, you can do so starting today. Click here.