When you go grocery shopping, do you make a beeline for the “organic” or “natural” foods section as soon as you’re in the door?
If you do, you’re in good company with more than half of American shoppers, according to a recent survey.
But there’s disagreement about the words organic and natural and what they mean to consumers. While 62 percent of consumers already buy food labeled natural, the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of these consumers would pay even more for natural food if the label met their expectations, according to the survey.
Respondents were divided on whether or not they believed that the label natural is verified — that is, whether or not foods have to satisfy specific standards to qualify for marketing using that label. And, as with many situations involving marketing, there is a big disconnect between perceptions and reality — in this case, a huge one.
Consumers themselves want more stringent labeling requirements, according to the survey:
Many consumers think that the natural label on packaged/processed foods currently means
- that no toxic pesticides were used (63 percent),
- no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (62 percent),
- no artificial ingredients or colors were used (61 percent),
- and no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were used (60 percent).
An even greater percentage feel that this label should mean that
- no toxic pesticides were used (84 percent),
- no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (85 percent),
- no artificial ingredients or colors were used (84 percent),
- and no GMOs were used (82 percent).
Consumers are even more stringent when it comes to what they want from the “organic” label on packaged/processed foods. Many consumers think that the organic label on packaged/processed foods currently means that
- no toxic pesticides were used (77 percent),
- no artificial ingredients or colors were used (73 percent),
- no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (72 percent)
- and no GMOs were used (72 percent).
An even greater percentage think that this label should mean that
- no toxic pesticides were used (89 percent),
- no artificial ingredients or colors were used (86 percent),
- no artificial materials or chemicals were used during processing (86 percent),
- and no GMOs were used (85 percent).
Wow. Talk about strict standards.
And yet, as of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an extremely limited definition of the term natural and how it applies to food. According to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA), “a food shall be deemed to be misbranded” if “its labeling is false or misleading” (21 USC §343(a)(1)).
But according to a recent petition by Consumers Union, the publisher of the survey:
The current policy regarding natural used by the FDA, as stated in a 1993 policy, is “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” Yet there is no formal definition and no rule, no verification and virtually no oversight and enforcement of the FFDCA’s requirement for labeling that is truthful and not misleading. We believe that the difference is drastic between the FDA’s extremely limited policy statement regarding natural labeling and what people think the natural label should mean.
Think about that: The public thinks that there are stringent standards for labeling foods as natural or organic and is willing to pay more for foods that meet them, and yet there are very few standards at all — with almost no enforcement.
Does that spell “invitation to scam” to you? Consumers Union thinks so.
Consumers Union is petitioning the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue interpretive rules prohibiting the use of the word natural as a label for food items.
If the agencies issue the rule, it will be an ironic (perhaps historic) convergence of what the market, consumers, and the government want: not something we see too much.
And it will be a good thing for all.