FDA’s Refusal to Define “Natural” Opens the Door for More Litigation

On Monday, the FDA issued a  letter in response to three judges’ request, including Judge Kevin McNulty of the District of New Jersey, to clarify the term “natural” as it applies to food labeling requirements.  In its letter, the FDA opted not to create a formal definition for the terms “Natural,” “All Natural” or “100% Natural,” instead relying upon its 1993 policy, in short, that it means “nothing artificial or synthetic… has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” 

 The FDA implied that though creating a formal definition may be something it considers doing in the future, it is not a priority, and in any event would require input from other agencies, the public, and of course, stakeholders in the food industry.  Such a process is a timely endeavor and will not bring a change anytime soon.  Accordingly, it appears that the influx of mislabeling lawsuits will not slow down, and may even gain speed.  With no firm guidance from the FDA, plaintiffs will likely rely more on state consumer protection acts, resulting in different rulings depending on the jurisdiction.  Ultimately, this will complicate a company’s ability to ensure that its labels are in compliance with all applicable rulings.

 Until such time as the FDA agrees to formally address the definition of “Natural,” companies will need to rely on multiple state-specific defense strategies, and continue to encourage the agency to address a more comprehensive solution.


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