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'Natural' Claims Disappearing From Food Labels After Lawsuits

By William Peacock, Esq. on November 14, 2013 12:21 PM

To paraphrase the chorus of a popular tune, "Blame it on my J.D., baby."

The nation's second-most-lucrative food adjective (behind low-fat), which brought in $40 billion in sales in the last 12 months, is suddenly being stripped off of labels. No longer will you find "Natural" Goldfish, or "All-Natural" Naked Juice. In fact, PepsiCo just paid $9 million over its Naked Juice labels.

And the blame for the disappearing adjective lies (almost) completely with the lawyers, reports The Wall Street Journal.

FDA: Uh, It's Like Nature-ish, Without Synthetic Stuff

Don't look to the FDA for guidance -- at least, not yet. The agency's website provides the following helpful tip for what makes a food "natural":

"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, 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."

And though the WSJ reports that a bill was introduced last month to force the FDA to clarify these things, even if the bill passes, we all know how fast the FDA moves on implementing food regulations.

That leaves it to the courts, and lawyers, to sort things out.

Is Anything All-Natural?

So is anything really "all-natural"? Seriously though, this is a good question.

What about genetically modified organisms? GMOs are found in nearly everything. In fact, GMO soybeans from Monsanto make up 90 percent of the market share. Grab your nearest granola bar and see what the label says: soy flour, soy lecithin, and soy. Grab pretty much any mass-produced product and it will have soy, high-fructose corn syrup, or some other "unnatural" ingredient.

According to the Journal, at least 100 lawsuits have been filed in the past two years challenging "natural" claims, with results varying between dismissals and multimillion-dollar settlements.

Of course, many will argue that this isn't a bad thing: consumers shouldn't be duped by an adjective that doesn't describe the lab-created ingredients.

Still, if you are in-house counsel for a food company, it's worth making sure that if the adjective is applied to the label, that it applies to the food. Don't make the same mistake that Frito-Lay did, reformulating more than 60 products and testing 300 "all natural" versions of its barbeque chips to find the perfect recipe -- before cutting the adjective in the wake of the tidal wave of lawsuits.

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