“On the advice of legal counsel … it has become clear to us that this is a conflict of interest with an inherent legal risk for us to define the standards for natural and to issue a seal,” Karen Howard, CEO of the association, announced at the group’s first national conference in Florida Jan. 27.
She explained that creating and managing the standard “does not meet our principles of transparency … and it is not in the best interest of our members.”
Forced to pick between the two components, Howard said the association chose to pursue its “work on the definition of natural and our consumer education campaign that we are building around that, and we will not, ourselves, create the seal.”
A clear definition of natural still needed
She explained that industry needs a clear definition in part to protect itself from the ongoing false claims class action lawsuits alleging the use of natural misled consumers. The idea being that if there was a strict definition to which manufacturers could point and with which they could prove they complied, they would be protected in court.
The decision to drop the certification program was difficult for the trade group, which was founded a year and a half ago in part on the premise that it would define natural and create a certification and consumer education program around the term.
The group’s “original premise” was to create a “voluntary paradigm to function in” the face of government’s refusal to define the term, Howard said.
However, that foundation was rocked in late 2015 when FDA called for comments on how to define natural – a signal the government was finally taking action on the issue.
The call “really threw a major wrench” in the association’s main mission and efforts to date, Howard said. “Once [FDA] opened up that door, it made it more difficult to create something that would have tremendous buy-in” from industry and consumers, she said.
Reflecting on the notorious slow place of creating government regulations, Howard added the future of natural’s definition is “nebulous,” and could take years to complete – if at all. “That is hard. Really hard,” she said.
Despite these setbacks, the association is pushing forward with its efforts to define natural and help clarify for consumers potentially conflicting elements of the term.
“We are not walking away. The confusion is not going away. … So, our obligation to the consumer is still very much necessary,” she told FoodNavigator-USA.
She explained that the association now will work closely with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements – which already has strong messaging in place and is gaining international commitments from stakeholders.
The trade group also continues to polish the rough draft of standards for food that it announced last fall.
Rethinking natural supplements
While the group originally intended to draft natural standards for supplements as well as food, it now is rethinking the relationship between the two.
The group initially delayed defining natural in the context of supplements to focus first on food, but it now is realizing there might not be a way to safely market capsules, pills and powders as natural, Michael Lelah, chief research scientist at Mercola.com, told conference attendees.
“There is a big challenge to dietary supplements and it is those typical formats in which supplements are used,” he said, explaining that because they do not “grow on trees” it is more difficult to sell them as natural.
Given that, he said, supplements should not use natural in marketing claims. Rather, “what we want to do is look at supplements in the context of natural health.”
He explained: “There are many needs for supplementation in natural health. We have deficiencies; we have ancient technologies and traditional medications that fit within the context of supplementation. And so, we are going to evolve for dietary supplements toward this concept of natural health and, ultimately, our goal is, of course, to be able to eat natural foods, but until we can get there by itself … we recognize there is a need for supplementation.”