By: Rick Barrett

Federal regulators are seeking public opinion on the use of the word natural on food labels, a move that could change the way hundreds of products are advertised.

Phrases such as "made with natural ingredients" are commonly used in the food industry, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have a definition for what constitutes a natural food. 

On Thursday, the agency said the AquAdvantage salmon — developed using growth hormone from Chinook salmon and a gene from an eel-like ocean fish — has become the first genetically engineered animal approved for American consumption, and that it doesn't require special labeling. 

Foods with no artificial or synthetic ingredients could be considered natural, according to the FDA. However, it doesn't address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides and irradiation, when the term is used on a product label.

Often, the word naturalis little more than a marketing gimmick, said Mark Kastel, founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a family-farm advocacy organization based in Cornucopia.

"It has become, for many, a somewhat meaningless term," Kastel said.

Through Feb. 10, the FDA is accepting comments from the public and the food industry on whether it's appropriate to define what natural means for many items and how it should be defined.

The agency also wants input on the use of the term on food labels.

"I would hope the FDA would adopt some sort of regulation as to what the term all naturalmeans," said Edward Smolyansky, chief financial officer of Lifeway Foods Inc., a Morton Grove, Ill., firm that makes kefir, a product similar to yogurt.

In 2013, Lifeway acquired the former Golden Guernsey dairy plant in Waukesha for kefir production.

"We go through great expense and great lengths to produce a product that is truly all natural. But there's no (federal) standard of identity or acceptable definition. There are lots of small companies abusing that term all natural, and they're getting away with it," Smolyansky said. "They're using cheap, unnatural ingredients from China and Mexico. They're cutting down the quality of the products and fooling the customer." 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food, beverage and consumer product companies, says it favors the FDA decision to review the use of the word natural in food labeling.

Seeking comments on a definition is a "welcome and necessary step toward having a common national standard that consumers can rely on regardless of where they live or shop," GMA president and CEO Pamela Bailey said in a statement.

The association says genetically modified food ingredients should not prevent something from being labeled natural. 

"Corn is corn regardless of the plant breeding technique," the GMA said in a petition to the FDA.

"FDA has consistently recognized that biotechnology does not change the essential nature of a food," the petition noted. 

Consumer groups have filed lawsuits against food manufacturers over the use of terms such as all natural, and some companies have paid millions of dollars to settle the litigation.

PepsiCo agreed to remove the words all naturalfrom its Naked juices after a lawsuit claimed the drinks contained synthetic fibers and genetically modified organisms.

Kellogg Co. said it would no longer use the labels "All Natural" or "Nothing Artificial" on certain Kashi cereal products.

Not wanting negative publicity, some companies are now more cautious in their use of the terms. 

"When they lose one of these lawsuits, there's a cost to it and a black eye," Kastel said. 

By comparison, the term organic food has a definition and rules for food producers to follow, such as not using pesticides on crops. 

Something that is labeled "all natural" is not necessarily organic, but there ought to be standards for the term, said Patrick Fox, president of the Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Wisconsin. 

Some products are labeled natural even if they are loaded with chemical preservatives, said Ron Balsimo, sales manager for the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, based in Madison.

"Natural, to me, is keeping a product in its rawest state. I wouldn't touch some of these so-called natural products with a 10-foot pole because by no means are they natural," Balsimo said.

The FDA has received at least three petitions asking that it define the term natural for use in food labeling, and one petition asking for a ban on the term.

The public and industry comments could raise many issues, such as whether pasteurization, curing and fermentation should be part of the definition.

There is also the question of whether adding something, such as a vitamin, to a food product would mean it is no longer natural. 

It could take years for the FDA to address all of the issues, if the agency decides to take action.

"I think it depends on who the real powers are in the industry and whether they want this to happen," Kastel said.

Food companies with truly natural products would probably favor a strict standard.

Other companies might prefer a broader FDA definition of natural so they can avoid lawsuits over the use of the term when it is not always a good fit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the meat industry, has standards for using natural in meat products.

Consumers could benefit from an FDA definition in other foods as well, said Barbara Ingham, a food scientist with University of Wisconsin Extension in Madison.

"Any time that you place boundaries, of course there are exceptions and people try to get around them. But I think this is a step in the right direction," Ingham said.

Terms such as fresh and homemade also are popular in food marketing but have no formal standard. And as new products arrive in grocery stores, there is not always oversight on the wording used on the labels. 

Any changes are only going to come after much debate, said Nick George, president of the Midwest Food Processors Association that represents vegetable growers.

"The organic industry had a long, hard discussion on defining organics. But eventually there was an agreement, so it's possible," George said.

Originally Published: Journal Sentinel