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Natural: Consumer Reports circulates petition to ban word from all food labels

There's a lot of information to "digest" on food labels; but if Consumer Reports has its way, one word will no longer be allowed. "Natural" will disappear from packaging.
There's a lot of information to "digest" on food labels; but if Consumer Reports has its way, one word will no longer be allowed. "Natural" will disappear from packaging.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The iconic protector of buyer rights and pocketbooks, “Consumer Reports,” is on the warpath. Well, not literally, but the venerable non-profit that has made it its business to test and rate consumer products, including foods, since 1936, has taken a step to urge the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ban the word “natural” from all food labeling.

On June 16, the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports launched its campaign to ban the term in conjunction with TakePart.com, a social media platform. Calling use of the term "natural" in relation to food and food products “misleading, confusing and deceptive,” the group took this step following a survey by its National Research Center. That new survey of 1,000 people pointed to misplaced public reliance on the term as a determinant of “good food.” The public, it says, believes that “natural” means something other than what it really describes.

The truth is that neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the USDA has adopted a formal definition for the term. However, neither agency has a quarrel with use of the term as long as nothing “artificial or synthetic” has been added.

The public, however, according to a spokesman for the testing organization, mistakenly takes the word as an assurance that a food or product is free of specific ingredients, additives, chemicals or components when, in actuality, that simply is not so. Furthermore, because there is no definition for “natural” used on food labels, there is no regulation, oversight or testing.

Survey findings include the following beliefs:

  • 89% of consumers believe that meat and poultry labeled “natural” is free of growth hormones,
  • Free of antibiotics or other drugs – 81%
  • That the feed contains no genetically engineered organisms or artificial ingredients – 85%, and
  • That no toxic chemicals, pesticides, artificial colors or GMOs were involved in processing.

The organization’s website, in a section dealing with food labels, discusses “natural” under the heading, “One we wish would just go away.”

Consumer Reports states that it has taken this action to empower consumers “with the knowledge they need to make better and more informed choices.” Today, June 24, the petition site puts responses at approximately 40% of the 5,000 signature goal. In coming months, other labeling issues will be explored on the platform, in conjunction with the consumer testing group’s research center.

Food Safety and Sustainability Center Executive Director Urvashi Rangan, PhD, said that the goal is to clear up some of the “green noise in the food label marketplace,” so that American consumers can be more confident in their food choices.