"Natural" Foods: Inherently Confusing

By Weaver, Allyson | Journal of Corporation Law, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

"Natural" Foods: Inherently Confusing


Weaver, Allyson, Journal of Corporation Law


  I. INTRODUCTION  II. BACKGROUND: RULES AND REGULATIONS GOVERNING FOOD LABELING      A. The Rise of "Natural " in the Food Industry      B. The History of Governing Federal Laws and the FDA's Authority      C. The USDA's Meat and Poultry "Natural" Standards III. ANALYSIS: HOW AGENCIES, CORPORATIONS, AND COURTS APPROACH THE      "NATURAL" PROBLEM      A. The FDA's Approach to "Natural"      B. The USDA's Approach to "Natural"      C. Food Corporations' Approaches to "Natural"      D. The Hormel Court's Approach to "Natural"      E. The Judiciary's Approach to "Natural"  IV. RECOMMENDATION      A. "Natural" Should Mean "Natural"      B. "Natural" is a Privilege, Not a Right   V. CONCLUSION 

I. INTRODUCTION

Tortilla chips, orange juice, soda, and ice cream: not only are they some of America's most popular, satisfying, calorie-laden foods, but these packaged products have another thing in common: a "natural" label. (1) Tortilla chips do not simply grow out of the ground or sprout from tree branches, so what exactly is a "natural" tortilla chip? Does the label mean the tortilla chips are made from fresh, locally grown ingredients? Does it mean that the chips do not contain any artificial ingredients or flavorings? Or, does it mean that the tortilla chips do not contain any processed or genetically modified ingredients? No matter the specifics, the label must mean that the tortilla chips are healthy, right? Many consumers are asking similar questions; unfortunately, it is currently impossible to find definitive answers.

This Note explores the use of "natural" in the food industry and the problems surrounding the term. Part II of this Note examines the rules and regulations that govern food labeling in the United States and the agencies that oversee "natural" labels. Part III explores the varying approaches that entities use to define the term "natural." The FDA and USDA have not followed the necessary administrative procedures to issue a final rule regarding "natural," which has led to numerous class action lawsuits against corporations that use the term. Courts face the challenge of identifying the appropriate uses of "natural" labels, which in turn has created inconsistencies among states. These inconsistencies burden courts and corporations that use the undefined term. Part III also examines a recent case, Hormel Foods Corp. v. USDA, which illustrates the uncertainties and complications surrounding corporations' uses of "natural" labels.

Part IV argues that the USDA and FDA must take final agency action to define "natural." The agencies should define "natural" narrowly, in accordance with the regular, everyday meaning of the word. Defining the term in accordance with the common understanding of "natural" will reduce consumer confusion and increase the reliability of the claimed natural qualities of "natural" products. Part IV explores what a narrow meaning will mean for corporations that want to use the "natural" label and the incentives it will produce that ultimately benefit consumers.

II. BACKGROUND: RULES AND REGULATIONS GOVERNING FOOD LABELING

Multiple laws and regulations govern food labeling in the United States: the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, (2) the Nutrition and Labeling Education Act, (3) and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. (4) Additionally, multiple agencies oversee the nation's food production and food labeling. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for "[protecting the public health by assuring that foods ... are safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled." (5) The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is "responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged." (6) The FDA and USDA are agencies with delegated power to issue rules regarding the appropriate use of "natural" labels. …

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