Last time the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) considered the labeling of meat products that claim to be natural, in December 2006, its Federal Register notice prompted 12,000 comments, many of them expressing concern about the use of seasonings, flavoring and tenderizing solutions in products labeled as ‘natural’. In addition, many of the comments disagreed that the FSIS should come up with a set definition.
In the current notice, FSIS said: “The comments indicate that there is an overall lack of consensus on both the general or common understanding of what the claim ‘natural’ means to the industry and to the public and on the approach that FSIS should take to address issues associated with the use of ‘natural’ claims on the labels of meat and poultry products.
“Nonetheless, FSIS has concluded that a further solicitation of comments could produce information that would help to clarify and resolve the issues surrounding the ‘natural’ claim.”
In particular, the FSIS has said it is seeking comments on whether it should establish a definition for the word ‘natural’. This is opposed to considering claims on a case-by-case basis and then requiring manufacturers to explain why their product qualifies for the claim on the label.
It has also asked for comments on whether products that contain ‘multi-functional’ ingredients such as naturally sourced sodium lactate should carry a label stating ‘all-natural ingredients’ rather than ‘natural’, or whether ‘natural’ should only apply to single-ingredient raw meat products. The FSIS previously allowed meat and poultry that contained sodium lactate to be considered natural, a decision that it later rescinded when it learned that sodium lactate was not only used as a flavoring (it has a salty flavor), but that it also has a preservative effect.
Traditionally, the FSIS has held the view that a ‘natural’ definition should only refer to the finished product, rather than the way in which the source animal was raised, but comments raised as a result of the 2006 notice have prompted it to seek further advice.
It is also considering whether more advanced modern food processing technologies can qualify as ‘minimal processing’, a caveat for natural products; and seeks comments on the potential economic effects of any of the approaches raised.
The department’s request for comments was published in today’s (Monday’s) Federal Register. The notice can be accessed online here.