At the tail end of a year when the genetically modified labeling debate spilled over to GM-containing products that make natural claims, the Food and Drug Administration has again been petitioned to clarify which products can be designated “natural.”
Earlier in 2013, lawyers defending food manufacturers who were sued for using natural claims on foods that contain GMOs and other ingredients considered unnatural by plaintiffs, were hopeful when a California district judge deferred to the FDA to determine the circumstances under which “food products containing ingredients using bio-engineered seed may or may not be labeled ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ or ‘100% natural.’”
Previous cases resulted in settlements where manufacturers paid fines and removed claims from packages. After being sued, Ben & Jerry’s, which sources 80% of its ingredients non-GMO, removed natural claims and vowed to go GMO-free by mid-2014.
The California judge's decision marked a welcome departure for some. The reason being that although the FDA has yet to define “natural” (it says it’s difficult to define a food product that has likely been processed and is no longer a product of the earth), it has determined that GM foods do not materially differ from other types of food, and even issued a guidance document in 2001 stating: “A label statement that expresses or implies that a food is superior (e.g., safer or of higher quality) because it is not bioengineered would be misleading.”
To add to the confusion, FDA has said that it does not object to use of the term “natural” if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
Now, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which staunchly opposes GM labeling, is asking the FDA not only to define “natural” but also allow foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such, according to a New York Times report.
A stance on the matter would not just force the FDA off the fence of indecision, but provide much-needed clarity for all parties involved. For an organization tasked with regulating the truthful labeling of all food products, a claim as ubiquitous as "natural" is too influential to avoid.
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