As lawsuits pile up, many big food companies scrap ‘all natural’ label

The FDA doesn't define 'natural' but does put forth what it believes the term to mean

While the search for healthy, so-called all natural food products is seemingly at an all-time high, finding your favorite foods labeled in such a way will become more of a scarcity as a growing number of food and drink companies make changes to their packaging.

Amid lawsuits challenging the “naturalness” of everything from drinks to ice cream to cereal, one of the most overused terms in food packaging today is slowing disappearing from many food product labels. For example, those “natural” Goldfish will simply be “Goldfish.”

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not formally define what “natural” means, the agency considers “natural'” to mean that “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.”

The FDA’s website states, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

According to Nielsen, food labeled “natural” raked in more than $40 billion in U.S. retail sales over the past 12 months. “That is second only to food claiming to be low in fat,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

As Congress considers a “food labeling modernization” bill, lawsuits claiming false advertising are starting to accumulate, with at “least 100 lawsuits been filed in the past two years challenging the natural claims of Unilever, PLC's Ben & Jerry's, Kellogg Co., Kashi, Beam Inc.’s Skinnygirl alcohol drinks and dozens of other brands,” the Journal said—some resulting in multi-million dollar settlements, while other cases have been thrown out.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the FDA lacks clarity as to how exactly “natural” is defined. For now, many food companies are tossing out the natural label to skirt the issue, Lori Leskin, a lawyer at Kaye Scholer and co-head of the American Bar Association's Products Liability Committee, told the Journal.

As Leskin summarized, “Companies are tending to pull back from the natural label because it isn't worth it right now.”


For more FDA coverage, check out these InsideCounsel stories:

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Erin E. Harrison

Erin E. Harrison is the Editor in Chief of InsideCounsel magazine. Harrison’s professional background includes extensive expertise in both print and online media, highlighted by...

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