Recent Articles About Labeling

Can You Trust The ‘Natural’ Label?

If you think the “natural” label means that a food product contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides, antibiotics, or GMOs, you’re mistaken—but you’re not alone. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 59% of consumers seek out the natural label, despite the fact that it has little or no meaning in the marketplace and no federal or third-party standards or verification.

We spoke with Urvashi Rangan, PhD, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, to learn more about sneaky food labels and a campaign to ban the term “natural.” On September 19, San Francisco residents can join Consumer Reports’ “American’s Most Wanted Labels” conference to find out which labels you can or can’t trust, and learn about efforts to bring credibility to food labels for animal welfare, fair trade, and sustainability.

Tell us about your work on food labels at Consumer Reports.

We have been looking at the landscape of eco-labels in food for some time now to see which labels really add value and how much. We have spent a lot of time watchdogging the organic label over the last 15 years and working with the USDA grass-fed claim to make sure those standards are meaningful. We’ve always been supportive of the fact that there’s a continuum of sustainability out there, and credible labeling is a way to move the sustainable marketplace.

What does the word “natural” mean on a food product?

The “natural” label on food doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning. On meat, it means nothing artificial is added to the cut of meat itself, but that’s woefully short of consumer expectations. An overwhelming majority say that they think that “natural” means no artificial ingredients and no pesticides—all things one would think a “natural” product ought to be. Poll after poll shows that people think the natural label means more than it does, and recent polling shows that about one-third of consumers think natural and organic mean the same thing, when they don’t.

urvashi_ranganTell us about the campaign to ban the word “natural” on food products. Why ban it instead of demanding better standards?

We already have an entire organic program, which took an act of Congress to pass and 12 years to get into regulation so that it’s now a verified label. Organic is not perfect, but it provides a way to hold food producers accountable. There isn’t the same mechanism for “natural” at all. There are virtually no standards behind it and no premarket verification, so why waste time and taxpayer dollars when we already have the organic framework?

In the last few years we’ve had over 200 lawsuits filed on misleading “natural” products that contain GMOs, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and so on. When the courts asked the FDA to define the term and stop tying up the courts, the FDA respectfully declined. So what we would like them to do then is just ban it, so that the credible labels can compete effectively and get better over time. They can’t do that when the marketplace is flooded with noisy claims like “natural” that don’t mean anything.

If “natural” is banned, won’t food manufacturers adapt and use other unregulated terms like “simple,” “pure,” and “real”?

That’s part of our greater effort in trying to get rid of greenwashing in the marketplace, which is going to have to come from agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, whose entire job is to prevent deceptive and misleading business practices. We need better coordination at the government level to make sure deceptive labels don’t get out there. In the meantime, we’re going to have to tackle them label by label. “Natural” is the biggest offender, but it’s the first in line of many labels that don’t mean anything, such as “free range,” “no nitrates,” “hypoallergenic,” and “fragrance free.”

Companies change their marketing strategies all the time. The burgeoning of “natural” on the market suggests that companies know that they can make a premium on that label. They know that label is appealing to consumers and yet they don’t have to do very much to put it on their package.

As a result of a class-action lawsuit last year, Naked Juice dropped the word “natural” from their labels. What role do the courts and public consumer pressure play in policing some of these misleading labels?

There have been a lot of lawsuits, and often what it comes down to is the FDA doesn’t have any standards, so there’s nothing to enforce. Almost every judge has had to come up with standards, which is a backward approach. Consumers have not really had the right to take on companies in this space, until POM vs. Minute Maid (Coca Cola). There was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court that essentially said that even if the FDA says a claim is not misleading, that doesn’t mean it’s not. Now people will actually have the right to sue for being misled. That will be pivotal in cases going forward.

What’s most problematic is how much time and money gets tied up in these court cases for something that clearly needs better definition. It’s interesting that it’s taken public opinion to start to shift what the court’s opinion ought to be, and I’m hoping that we’ll see some of that trickle down in terms of better regulations, but no one should hold their breath.

What advice do you have for consumers who want to see better regulation of these labels?

We’ve been trying to give consumers the information to empower them to make better decisions (see This campaign is really about getting consumers involved in telling the government what they want. When we started this work 15 years ago, the questions consumers had were, “Is that label meaningful? Is it verified? Is it consistent?” What we know now is we’ve got a more sophisticated consumer who wants to know what these labels mean in terms of GMOs in seed, ammonia levels in chicken coops, slaughter practices and transport, or humane treatment. If we can give people the ability to make those decisions in a more informed way, then this campaign will be a success.

What can we look forward to at the food labels conference on September 19?

I think everybody will take something away from the conference. We’re taking a very deep dive into animal welfare and worker welfare. We’re talking with the first chair of the National Organic Standards Board about where the label has been and where it’s going. We’re going to talk to farmers about their challenges in terms of being on the progressive edge, and certifiers who are really doing amazing work to hold the gold standard. We’re trying to show the bright side out there. Having people be better educated will allow them to ask better questions, which will allow the market to, we hope, improve over time.


This post originally appeared in the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) e-letter.


All the News That’s Fit to Eat: New Poultry Rules, GMO-Resistant Bugs, and Climate-Friendly Cheerios

It’s summer, but that doesn’t mean food news stops. Below, we share some of the top news stories of the week.

1. USDA Overhauls Poultry Inspection Rules (The Hill)

After more than two years of proposals and push-back by advocates, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) moved to put new poultry inspection rules in place yesterday. The voluntary rules would result in companies providing their own inspectors (while keeping one from the USDA in every plant), making it essentially a move to privatize the inspections. It will also mean fewer inspectors per plants, with each inspector looking at 140 birds per minute. Read more

GRAS Out: Surprising Number of Unregulated Chemicals Found in Food

If you don’t recognize all the high-tech ingredients available in food and drinks these days, you’re not alone. Some of these new additions—such as glucosamine hydrochloride, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), or soy isoflavone extract—might show up in product marketing, while others, such as milk protein concentrate, will not. But whether new food additives are being promoted or not, a report released this week by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says their novelty isn’t the only reason we should be paying attention. Read more

Industry’s Secret Plan to Get the Feds to Kill GMO Labeling in Every State

With the disappointing results now in from I-522, the initiative in Washington State that would have required labeling of genetically-engineered food (aka GMOs), the looming question is, what’s next? At least for the junk food lobby, that answer in painfully clear: stop this state-level movement at any cost. In today’s New York Times, Stephanie Strom reports on the dirty details contained in industry documents that I obtained from the Washington State attorney general’s office in the wake of a lawsuit brought against the Grocery Manufacturers Association for illegally concealing donors to the No on 522 campaign. Read more

Berries Over Bugs

A couple of months ago, a report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization invited the prospect of insects being a bigger and bigger part of our diets in the future. High in protein and healthy fats, easier on the environment than heftier animals like cows, pigs, and chickens, insects are rumored to have a somewhat nutty flavor. Read more

How to Stop Deceptive Food Marketers? Take Them to Court

Last week, Monster Beverage filed an unusual lawsuit against the San Francisco City Attorney’s office to stop an attempt to place restrictions on the company’s highly caffeinated and potentially harmful products aimed at youth. This aggressive move is a form of backlash against using the legal system to hold the food and beverage industry’s accountable for deceptive marketing practices. Read more

Don’t Worry, GE Labeling Will Not Cause World Hunger

The movement to label genetically engineered (GE) foods in the U.S. is gaining momentum by the day. Just this week, a federal bill to require labeling of GE foods was introduced in Washington D.C. with strong bipartisan support —including that of over 30 Congressional co-sponsors from House and Senate. And more states have introduced GE labeling bills this year than ever before. Whether or not these initiatives pass in 2013, this much seems clear: we will win labeling of GE foods. It’s just a matter of time. Read more