Speaking at the FoodNavigator-USA Natural & Clean Label online forum - which is now available on demand (click HERE) - CSPI director of litigation Steve Gardner said the only sure fire way to restore consumer trust and stop the deluge of lawsuits over ‘natural’ would be to define what it actually means.
“A definition would never be perfect but we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” he told delegates at the 60-minute live forum, which attracted almost 1,000 registrants.
And to those arguing that the term ‘natural’ is so subjective that trying to define it in relation to food would be well-nigh impossible, he said: “It’s disingenuous to say there is no definition of natural. Every dictionary I open has one, and those definitions pretty much comport with consumer understanding of natural.
“A clear definition would cut down the consumer deception and eliminate the lawsuits.”
Steve Gardner: A clear definition would cut down the consumer deception and eliminate the lawsuits
Alternatively, of course, marketers could just stop using the word ‘natural’ altogether, he said (“consumers would be perfectly well off”), or simply accept that they are very likely to get sued if they use it on products that contain ingredients that many consumers - reasonably or otherwise - don’t like the sound of.
While many food & beverage companies at the receiving end of these lawsuits beg to differ, he added, “I’m tired of hearing defense lawyers saying the problem is opportunistic plaintiff’s lawyers. [The problem is] opportunistic companies that are making claims that get them sued.
“These companies would not be stepping back from making bogus claims were it not for the lawsuits, and there would be pretty much no pressure on FDA to do anything at all if it were not for these lawsuits. Litigation is not the best form of regulation, but in the absence [of a legal definition of natural from the FDA] it’s the best we’ve got.”
Dr Dan Fabricant: The term natural clearly means something to the consumer
Fellow panel member Dr Daniel Fabricant, CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA) - which is developing a ‘natural seal’ for foods & beverages having successfully developed such a scheme for home & personal care products - agreed that defining natural was worth doing, however tough it might be.
“I don’t think you should try to drown the thing underwater and say ‘natural’ can never be defined. It has a meaning to the consumer, it’s important to the marketplace and I’d rather be 95% right and do something about it than 100% wrong by doing nothing.”
And while some stakeholders would argue that whether a product is ‘natural’ or not arguably has little or no bearing on the things that really matter (such as whether that food is healthy, sustainably produced and safe to eat), that doesn’t mean that it’s not a debate worth having, he said.
“Of course there are other priorities in the food industry. Hey if you eat 18 organic chocolate bars I think we all know that’s not healthy.”
What consumers are expecting is that natural is plant-based
But consumers, right or wrong, do care about whether their foods are ‘natural’ (and they are certainly buying more and more ‘natural’ products), he said.
“What consumers are expecting is that natural is plant-based, not from petrochemicals. It’s turning towards using plants in a way that’s sustainable. Also then you turn to the processing of those ingredients; if you are reintroducing petrochemical solvents [to extract these ‘natural’ ingredients, for example] that seems to go against the backbone of the movement.”
But it’s also important to consider sustainability, he said, which in some respects the petrochemical industry is addressing more effectively than some part of the natural products industry.
“The petroleum industry is unique in that there are no waste products, in that I mean every part of petroleum is used… When we are able to use plants in the same way, where every part of that plant is used whether it’s fiber or oils or sweeteners, thickeners, that’s where the movement really takes off and has legs.”
The issue is can we deliver what consumers are looking for, not how we define our borders as an industry
But what about those who say that the whole natural food ‘movement’ risks being compromised as large CPG firms with different priorities start buying up more natural and organic firms?
“I would agree [that the lines between the natural and organic products industry and the rest of the industry are becoming blurred],”said Dr Fabricant.
”But I am not sure that those lines were ever anything more than a figment of people’s imagination. The issue is the consumer movement and where it’s at, can we deliver what consumers are looking for, not how we define our borders as an industry.”
Click HERE to read part II of our report from our panel debate, which addressed the following questions:
- Do natural claims still resonate with consumers?
- Are all natural claims worth the legal hassle?
- Who is driving the natural & clean label agenda?
- Do shoppers understand the difference between natural and organic?
Click HERE to register to watch the debate - which was sponsored by Virun, Naturex, Corbion Purac and Kerry - on demand.
Click HERE to download a new report for the Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI) by Steve Gardner, Amanda Howell and Erika Knudsen at the CSPI, entitled: A natural solution: Why should FDA define ‘natural’ foods?
Read FoodNavigator-USA’s exclusive vox pop on natural and clean label trends: