The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is set to implement new rules on the definition of the term 'natural', after receiving a petition stating that the claim on meat and poultry products is misleading to consumers.
The agency said it had decided to initiate rulemaking because it recognizes the discrepancy in certain cases where the claim is presently permitted.
The definition currently in use dates back to 1982, when the USDA's regulatory agency - the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) - published a policy guidance stating that products can be labeled 'natural' if they contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients, and if they are minimally processed.
However, the policy allows for certain exceptions to this general rule, and in August last year FSIS also modified the guidance by acknowledging that sugar, sodium lactate (from a corn source) and natural flavorings from oleoresins or extractives could be acceptable.
But meat product manufacturer Hormel Foods in October petitioned the USDA to provide more stringent rules on when a 'natural' claim can be used.
According to the firm, the exceptions allowed by the USDA currently result in inconsistent guidance that provides an opportunity for food manufacturers to manipulate the claim, thereby undercutting consumer confidence in labeling.
The petition states that as consumer interest in natural products is rising, meat and poultry food manufacturers are seeking to establish marketing presence in this growing area of labeling. However, it points out the difficulty in maintaining a level playing field among manufacturers wishing to establish a marketing presence with FSIS's acceptance of ingredients such as sodium lactate.
The USDA has said that it recognizes the significant disagreement about aspects of the August 2005 policy modification, particularly the recognition of sodium lactate, and that it has received information that raises questions about when, and if, a food to which sodium lactate has been added would be fairly characterized as 'natural'.
And because it believes that the issue is best resolved through a rulemaking process, FSIS has removed the reference to sodium lactate from the 2005 modification. Until new rules are in place, the agency has said 'natural' claims for foods in which sodium lactate is used will continue to be considered by FSIS on a case-by-case basis, in light of factors such as the level used, the claimed technical effect of the sodium lactate, and the actual effect that it is having on the product.
The USDA, which is soliciting comments on the issue, will hold a public meeting on December 12 in order to facilitate the comment process.
Some of the issues the agency is seeking input on include the eligibility of products for 'natural' claims if these have been manufactured using modern processing methods, which were not available 24 years ago when the policy was established.
Furthermore, the agency asks what the implications and conflicts are with regard to using current and new food processing methods - such as chlorine in poultry chillers - and certain classes of ingredients - such as antimicrobial agents - and the meaning of the claim 'natural' on product labels.
The USDA also asks if food safety and consumer protection benefits of using what historically may have been considered more than minimal processing techniques and antimicrobial agents outweigh conflicts with the meaning of 'natural'.
It also requests information on consumer perceptions of certain terms such as 'minimal processing', 'artificial and synthetic' and 'preservatives'. All comments must be received by January 11 2007.
To read the agency's notice, click here .
To read Hormel's petition, click here .