Food Companies Look for Market Advantage by Claiming "Natural"

As companies such as Tyson Foods Inc. and Sara Lee Corp. work to increase their share of the “natural” foods and beverages market—estimated at $13 billion a year—the definition of “natural” has become increasingly elusive. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally allows foods to be labeled as natural if such a claim is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, some cases arising today are more problematic in nature. (The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) policy roughly mirrors the FDA’s, though it adds that “natural” meat and poultry products cannot be more than minimally processed.)

Is the sodium lactate used as a flavoring and preservative in sliced roast beef “natural?” How about the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens sodas? In the case of high-fructose corn syrup, the watchdog group (the Center for Science in the Public Interest) believes it is not natural and has even threatened to sue soft-drink companies like 7-Up producer Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages for promoting drinks sweetened with the substance as “100% natural.”

In October 2006, Hormel Foods Corp. filed a “natural” petition with the USDA, aiming to outlaw any natural claim on meats containing sodium lactate. The corn-derived additive is used as a flavoring and preservative, but the USDA recently decided that only products using the material as a flavoring can still use the “natural” labeling. In April 2007, Sara Lee Corp. petitioned the FDA to define “natural” in a way consistent with the USDA and to consider sodium lactate as natural. The company claims that natural preservatives, such as sodium lactate, are derived from plants, animals and/or microflora, and thus, are “natural” ingredients.

The FDA and USDA are carefully considering how to move forward on the “natural” issue, given that any sort of federal ruling would drastically affect the industry and have competitive consequences. (Source: AP)

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