News Feature | January 3, 2014

Food Labeling: Words Without Regulations

Source: Food Online

By Alec Italiano, contributing writer

Terms like “Natural” and “Free Range” currently carry no standards by the FDA

In the food labeling world there has been a lot of debate over what terms the FDA decides to regulate and what terms the agency skips over. The lack of regulations on phrases like “Natural,” “Free Range,” “Locally Grown,” "Made with Whole Grains,” and “Lightly-Sweetened” can leave consumers believing false claims or wandering in ambiguity. Nowadays, consumers demand information and the lack of regulated definitions to these phrases has created some animosity between consumers and label writers.

According to the FDA, the term “Natural” is only applicable to meat and poultry products. Deeming a product with the term is supposed to indicate it was created without artificial substances, but food products that are, or contain, genetically modified organisms (GMO) are currently able to be labeled as “Natural.” The term “Natural” on labels also is in direct competition with “Organic” — which is accompanied by its own set of guidelines. For example, under these new guidelines, food containing high fructose corn syrup will be considered “Natural,” but not “Organic.”

Riding the coattails of success of the organic food industry, the “Buy Local” movement has picked up momentum in recent years. The term “Local” carries no legal standard, so oranges grown in Chile and sold in Montana could technically carry a label reading “Local” if food producers chose to do so.

“Free Range” and “Made with Whole Grains” are other terms that have a lot of leeway in their definitions. “Free Range,” means that chickens are given access from their coop to the outdoors but no specifications regarding time spent outside or the size of the outdoor area in relation to the number of chickens on the farm are given. In the case of whole grains, labels reading, “Made with Whole Grains,” also do not have a government regulation placed upon them. This means even if the product has only trace amounts of whole grain in it, the label can display it as a Whole Grain product.

Recent political referendums and bills have been proposed to label genetically modified food and these initiatives may make it more difficult for companies to use the aforementioned language when labeling products. However, it is unclear when that will happen in the political realm or when the FDA and USDA will catch up to labeling regulation. In the meantime, manufacturers that mislabel food products could come at the high cost of losing customers, especially in an age of very well informed consumers.

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