The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no plans in the near future to establish a definition of the term 'natural', saying it has other priorities for its limited resources.
A lack of a uniform approach to the term has resulted in inconsistent product claims, consumer confusion, and even lawsuits against food companies accused of misleading consumers.
FDA last year received two petitions requesting it to clearly define the term, in order to avoid such problems.
One was sent by the trade group Sugar Association, in an effort to carve out a more distinct role for sugar as the ideal 'natural' sweetener source.
The second petition was sent by Sara Lee, a leader in the US market for baked goods, which claimed that a formal definition would provide consistency for consumers and manufacturers alike.
Although FDA has not formally responded to the petitions, FoodNavigator-USA.com has learned that the agency will not be considering the issue in the near future because "we're not sure how high of an issue it is for consumers".
However, FDA said the petitions are still valid and will be reviewed in due course.
In an interview with this publication, Geraldine June from FDA's Food Labeling and Standards department said the agency had not put the 'natural' issue on its priority list because there is not enough evidence that the current situation means consumers are being misled.
She acknowledged that a wide variety of products on the marketplace currently carry the claim but said that "even if people interpret it in different ways it doesn't mean there is confusion out there. If there was, then we would definitely raise it as a priority".
In 1993, the FDA said it did not include a definition of the term in its Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) "because of resource limitations and other agency priorities".
However, it did concede at the time that the use of the term on food labels is "of considerable interest to consumers and industry" adding that "because of the widespread use of this term, and the evidence that consumers regard many uses of this term as noninformative, the agency would consider establishing a definition."
However, June said that "unfortunately, we've had limited resources since that time. Even though it's been more than ten years, we've had more pressing issues with food safety".
Issues that take priority in the under-resourced agency include health claims, nutrient claims, and anything that can have an impact on consumer health and safety, such as allergen declarations and irradiation labeling.
But FDA has left open a window of hope.
"The bottom line is we'd have to have consumer research that shows overwhelmingly that people are being misled."
If this was provided, said the agency, then it would push the issue onto its radar screen.
In the meantime, FDA said it consistently holds to the policy it had outlined in 1993:
"FDA has not established a formal definition for the term 'natural', however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Use of the term 'natural' is not permitted in the ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase 'natural flavorings'."
FDA also said it has a system in place for manufacturers with doubts to approach them and ask for guidance on the use of particular ingredients.