Food Labeling

The FDA's Push to Define 'Natural' Food is an Exercise in Futility

Let consumers, advocates, and courts decide.

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Earlier this week, the comment period closed in the FDA's rulemaking pertaining to the use of the term "natural" on food labels. The FDA also this week announced it planned to reconsider use of an even more loaded term: "healthy."

Reading through a sampling of the comments submitted to the agency in the "natural" rulemaking, it's easy to see why issuing a universal regulation that would define the term is impossible.

For example, one commenter urged the FDA to adopt "a stricter definition of the word "natural,'" though she did not proffer a definition. One anonymous commenter suggested the agency ban use of the term. Another commenter wrote that no food should be labeled as natural if "it has been processed and put into a container." Yet another said the term "means that you don't have to add anything to enhance the product."

Experts have also weighed in. Pace Law School Prof. Jason Czarnezki recently suggested in a recent Time piece that use of the term "natural" be governed by the dictionary definition of the term.

I couldn't agree more. But Prof. Czarnezki would have the FDA be the arbiter of its use. We don't need that. Courts already take into account dictionary definitions when they consider, for example, whether use of a term constitutes fraud.

"bacon bits"
Credit: Douglas Muth

In fact, the push to define what's "natural" came in the wake of a slew of lawsuits over use of the term. Back in 2013, I wrote about a handful of cases that centered on use of the term. In one case, a plaintiff sued the maker of Chobani, claiming in part that the its Greek yogurt was mislabeled as "all natural" because it contains coloring made from fruits and vegetables.

Another case concerned Mission tortilla chips, which contain GMO corn. At the time, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers gave the FDA six months to make "an administrative determination[ on] the question of whether and under what circumstances food products containing ingredients produced using bioengineered seed may or may not be labeled" as "all natural." Three years later, here we are.

An FDA definition of "natural" or any other food terminology won't do anything at all to clear up the matter. And it won't avoid litigation. Judge Rogers and her peers will simply end up ruling on another sort of cases. People will sue companies they claim are misusing a defined term. The FDA will fine companies for doing the same. Companies will sue other companies for misusing a defined term. Advocacy groups will sue the FDA because they don't like its definition, or the way it's enforcing the definition.

In short, lawsuits will happen either way. And they may happen more often if the FDA defines the term. That's because, for several years now, food companies have been scared off from using the word by the aforementioned slew of lawsuits over use of the term. As a result, a company boasting about their "natural" food these days is about as common as a company using label space to brag that its food contains gluten. This is evidence that litigation works. In my view, it's also evidence that regulations defining terms like "natural" and "healthy" are not needed.

What's more, it's not as if government agencies are very good at this defining thing. For example, sometimes the government defines foods in a highly irregular manner—one that wrongly ignores the centuries-old dictionary definition of the term. Recently, I discussed a federal court ruling (in a case in which I served as an expert) in which a judge ruled that the state of Florida may redefine skim milk in such a way that skim milk that contains exactly one ingredient—skim milk—can be prohibited from being labeled as skim milk. In other cases, the FDA has defined a term, only to then accost a company that uses a similar (but not identical) word to define a similar (but not identical) food.

Ultimately, if you believe the FDA should be in the business of defining food terms, where—if anywhere—is your endpoint? Should the FDA next take the important step of defining "yummy," "crunchy," or "climatarian"?

"The idea that the FDA needs to define every word that has ever been used to refer to food is ludicrous," I told Agence France-Presse in 2014. "The occasional lawsuit helps keep companies honest and that has always been the case."

As I've stated time and again, the FDA should permit any food label so long as it contains minimum the required information—including the name of the food manufacturer and an accurate list of ingredients—and doesn't make any patently fraudulent claims. The agency's role should end there. Consumers, competitors, watchdogs, and attorneys can figure out the rest.

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80 responses to “The FDA's Push to Define 'Natural' Food is an Exercise in Futility

  1. Since we will die without food, how could anything we eat NOT be labeled “healthy?”

    1. We have to do something, for the children.

    2. What about the Political State defining “supernatural”?

      Good thing?

  2. Maybe all the men in the country should be more worried about this:

    You’re a rapist

    That’s right, they want to make the entire country a radical leftist college campus, throw in some prison time for those thought crimes.

    1. “…even if the jury and judge believed him.”

      Mens Rea and jury nullification exist for a damned good reason. Kill them at your own peril.

      1. Well, I think we can say that jury nullification has effectively been killed. Mens Rea is close to follow.

        Basically is these sick perversions of human form get their way, any woman you’ve ever had sex with who gets pissed at you can basically say you forced them to have sex and you have to prove you didn’t or you get 5 years and a felony, basically a life destroying thing, merely by whim of someone saying something, whether truth or not.

        That and bullshit like this, the rule of law is almost dead:

        Obama the bathroom Nazi

        1. We have a case around here with a transgender high school kid who was allegedly suspended for using the girls bathroom despite the district’s policy of accommodation. Some transgender b rights group is threatening to sue the district. I talked to my friend (a teacher in the district) and, well, I don’t think this kid wants to go through discovery.

          1. Obama will invite him to the Whitehouse and have an official coming out. Then sic his DOJ on that school. I mean Obama, there’s a guy who has his priorities down. We’re still in Iraq, the middle east is in flames, Guantanamo is still open, 1/3 of the country has stopped even looking for employment, but hey, fuck that shit, we’re doing important stuff here!

          2. As part of the accommodation process, we need to certify and register transgender kids and issue them arm band so that all observers know that it is ok for them to use the girls shower.

            We also need to provide an alternative girls shower for those girls who are uncomfortable about this. Probably some sort of girls reform school for the clinically intolerant.

            1. All businesses should receive that mandate immediately. After all, they can afford it because they’re rich. If they weren’t rich, they wouldn’t be rich business owners. If we accidentally kill off a few businesses who can’t afford to comply, well that’s just another step towards equality. And we have to do it anyway, if it saves just one child.

        2. Basically is these sick perversions of human form get their way, any woman you’ve ever had sex with who gets pissed at you can basically say you forced them to have sex and you have to prove you didn’t

          How about that way?

        3. Does anyone ever wonder why Canada isn’t plagued by these rogue-woman problems?

      2. Mens Rea would be proven under the new proposals just as under current law. Did he intend to do what he did? Yes he did.

  3. Time for another bailout. A really, really big one this time. Get right on that Commander Bathroom Nazi.

    Save Socialism!

    1. Pinko shithole implodes predictably, clueless leftist retards screech at the injustice, news at 11.

    2. You have to love Commander Bus Driver.

      “Washington is activating measures at the request of Venezuela’s fascist right, who are emboldened by the coup in Brazil,” he said during a televised broadcast in reference to this week’s impeachment of fellow leftist Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.

      Maduro, 53, then declared a 60-day state of emergency which includes the “necessary measures” to protect Venezuela in the event of a foreign attack, he said, without providing details. [L2N18B014]

      Save me comrades, save me! lolololol

      1. All the GOP had to do to Brazil was leak a few NSA phonetaps or politicians and bribery barons and point to that uppity elected FEMALE president loosening up the ku-klux restrictions on abortion (4 years hard time for the woman, 10 for the doctor).

        Anyone who wants the commie atheist Venezuelans overthrown need only convince God’s Own Prohibitionists that Venezuela is about to legalize pregnancy termination–like nuclear-armed Canada already has…

  4. I got into an inadvertent argument with a co-worker last week; he was dissing GMO foods to the guy who stocks our company snacks and drinks. I told him that almost all human food is genetically modified, even apples, potatoes, etc, with the exceptions being venison or elk, I suppose. He got pretty defensive. Got that shifty look people get when they know they have no argument and don’t want to admit they are operating on feelz. I figured I may as well have some fun, said corn, for instance, bears almost no resemblance to its 10,000 year old ancestor, that Indians did most of the genetic mods to it. Wheat, same thing. Cattle, pigs, same thing. Fish, of course, though not as directly, but selective catching is an evolutionary pressure.

    He said something about “if it’s not natural, I don’t want it in my body” and walked out. I wonder what he eats that is actually un-GMO. Mainly I know he’s just deluded and doesn’t want to face facts.

    1. You should tell him you’re interested in his opinion and ask him to send you links for peer reviewed research studies concluding that GMOs to be harmful to humans. Then he can look for any of the zero studies in existence and send you a link to the site of some Eastern Mystic Hack who wrote a shitty non-fact based pseudoscience book.

      1. “Mother Gaia, PBUH, forbade Man from molesting the form of her creations!”

        – Ecoterrorist Bible.

      2. No good. He simply doesn’t understand what “modified” means, regardless of genetics. The idea that the Indians selectively bred maize, that humans everywhere have selectively bred cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, chicken, and all sorts of animals and plants — it is beyond his comprehension. In previous conversations, it was clear he thinks “organic” has a simple definition, but legal and real-world, not understanding the basic concept that some people allow “organic” fertilizers and pesticides, some don’t, and among those who do, the list of acceptable “organic” fertilizers and pesticides differs.

        His feelz are all that matters. He vaguely understands that evil corporationz are out to destroy his health, but cannot comprehend that there is a wide variation between that and his feelz.

        It is always interesting trying to pin him down, but it can’t be done. It’s rainy day entertainment only, not at all productive or enlightening.

        1. Maybe if all the scientists give up those white lab coats and get themselves done up in some hunter gatherer garb, he’ll be ok.

          1. Still depends whether they were part of a corporation or if there was profit involved anywhere in the process.

        2. It’s fear of modernity, and there’s actually good reason for it. People have a healthy skepticism about experts doing things that affect their lives w/o those people’s understanding of the processes. Surely we’ve seen many examples of that having led to adverse results. We took your word for it that Iraq had WMD, because it was secret so you couldn’t show us, & where did that get us? You convinced us to take Swine Flu vaccine, ditto. You tell us we have to accept this currency, ditto. So I can understand people’s being reluctant to consume foods made by methods they’re told are advanced & which are too technical for them to understand w/o long study. But at least they have the choice, which they didn’t with gov’t-sponsored programs.

          1. I would think that, except their views on climate change pretty much negate the argument since they seem to selectively trust science inversely proportional with actual evidence. On top of that trying to point out that GMO’s would be a good thing if Anthropogenic Climate Change was real, and that they could finally cure world hunger, is apparently ‘problematic’. To me, this proves these people are all mendacious fucks that don’t give a shit about anything other than signaling how much better they are since they ‘care’.

            These types want humanity to rush to a ‘cure’ for those mostly-imagined ‘wrongs’, but when a cure is found it’s never good enough.

      3. There is a different anti-GMO nut at work who is no fun at all. He knows all sorts of jargon but has no understanding of what the jargon means. He can quote statistics all day long, without the slightest clue as to how they were derived or what their significance is. He goes into great detail about the healthy foods he eats, without any understanding of what he is describing.

        If you try to educate him, to correct his definitions or explain what word he just used, he spouts a dozen more, like a hydra-Eliza which spouts back what you said in a dozen new jargon-filled rants, with no comprehension. It’s not at all interesting or entertaining. He’s intense without being earnest, like a BASIC program which ends with GO 10.

        1. Ah, the good ol infinite loop. I think you’re onto something here. Progs and greenies are like an infinite loop of derp. In fact, that might be a good way to describe society today, stuck in the infinite loop of derp.

          1. Every comment you’ve made is so unintelligent and hypocritical that I almost want to believe it’s satire. Then I see how well your behavior aligns with so many other sad, angry, ill-informed basement dwellers that feel ‘wronged’ by the left. Must be easy, deluding yourself.

    2. If smebody said to me “if it isn’t natural, I don’t want it in my body” I would snap back “So, you’re ok with arsenic and botulism?”.

      Natural is overrated.

  5. Pace Law School Prof. Jason Czarnezki recently suggested in a recent Time piece that use of the term “natural” be governed by the dictionary definition of the term.

    I couldn’t agree more. But Prof. Czarnezki would have the FDA be the arbiter of its use. We don’t need that.

    There’s the obvious comparison to the (Florida?) dairy which has been forbidden from calling its skim milk “skim milk” because they refuse to add vitamin A.

    I am continually amazed at how astonished I get from people who want to give the state more power, then act astonished that it does something stupid with that power.

    1. I see I should have read further:

      Recently, I discussed a federal court ruling (in a case in which I served as an expert) in which a judge ruled that the state of Florida may redefine skim milk in such a way that skim milk that contains exactly one ingredient?skim milk?can be prohibited from being labeled as skim milk.

      At least I got the state right.

      1. It’s always Florida. I just assume it’s Florida now unless told otherwise.

  6. An FDA definition of “natural” or any other food terminology won’t do anything at all to clear up the matter, Baylen Linnekin explains.

    This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

    1. The definition of natural will be similar to what the definition of organic is now. IOW, whatever the corporations with the most lobbyists and their cronies in DC say it will be.

  7. Hillary keeps falling in the RCP avg poll. She’s less than 6 points up now. I wonder if Cyto has had a massive coronary?

  8. Love the picture. I grew up near Shady Maple.

    Mmmmmm… All you can eat steak night. I think I once had, like, six steaks.

  9. George Clooney: ‘There is not gonna be a President Donald Trump

    “Let’s start much simpler ? there is not gonna be a President Donald Trump,” Clooney replied, according to Deadline. “Fear is not something that drives out country. We’re not going to be scared of Muslims or immigrants or women. We’re not actually afraid of anything, so we are not going to use fear. It’s not going to be an issue.

    That settles that.

    1. I’ve lost count of how many celebrities have TOTALLY DESTROYED Donald Trump as told by the Huffington Post.

      1. I’m not sure how there was anything left to destroy after the media got done with him. If the celebs destroy him even more, Hillary doesn’t have a chance.

        1. She doesn’t even have much chance of the nomination. Bernie, even less. It’s going to be Trump vs. Biden, the Democrat who’d be the best campaigner vs. him. I’d rate that a toss-up, but if I had to bet, slight edge to Biden because he’ll have a shorter campaign.

    2. For sure, Clooney’s vote counts for like 10 million votes, duh. Guy has probably never even seen a voting booth.

    3. We’re not actually afraid of anything

      Except for AR-15s, college boys, trans fats, salt, soda, untaxed cigarettes, the Koch Bros, corporations…

      1. I was thinking exactly this.

  10. “Sitting is the new smoking”

    Just seen on a TV ad.

    The broccoli mandate approaches.

    1. We need smart chairs. They start electrocuting you and dial the local police if you sit too long. For the children.

    1. Bill’s problem is that he has to have sex with cankles now that no one else wants to have sex with him. He’s just mad.

    2. I think one of the biggest problems in America today is we seem to be less prejudiced about a lot of things, except we don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.

      Bill has always been a good speaker. He knows that if you start with something true, people will perk up and listen. Then you can lay on the bullshit.

    3. Why did I automatically read that as “Bill Clinton takes on prostitutes in coal country”?

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  12. How psychologists used these doctored Obama photos to get white people to support conservative politics

    Among the 101 participants of other races or ethnicities, by contrast, those who saw the lightened image of Obama were twice as likely to support the tea party as those who saw the darkened image. Because they had fewer subjects of color, Willer and his colleagues couldn’t rule out the possibility that this difference between the randomly assorted groups was due to chance.

    The result suggests that some white Americans are more likely to oppose Obama solely because of the shade of his skin. For them, the reality that someone with a dark complexion occupies the nation’s highest office could be a source of unease

    No surprise there, honkies.

    1. Conservative voters are suffering from false consciousness. They were tricked into it.

    2. That sounds backwards. Light Obama yields tea party support?

    3. You quoted the wrong part, the above is just a puzzling statement about the response from minority groups (which suggest the exact same effect as for evil white people) that they ignored because the sample size was too small, luckily for them, so they could dismiss it and leap to their convoluted racism narrative.

      As for the effect, perhaps it is because those who oppose the tea party are the ones obsessed with race.

      I’d bet it is just another low power study that concludes with finding the bias of the researchers, and will fail to be replicated if anyone tried.

  13. How the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan Became an SJW-Hating Conservative Crusader

    On Thursday, he slammed “socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and accused liberal activists of infringing on free speech. “The tactics in the social justice warrior movement are to stifle and shut down free speech,” the singer said Thursday during an appearance on Infowars, the online network run by far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

    “And I would argue in the world that I live in, which is the bareknuckle world, they’re leveraging their position because they don’t have power.”

    You can make it last, Billy. Forever you…

    I do not think the author wrote enough about his interview, and I would like to see a more in depth, snarky piece about an entertainer’s political opinions.

    1. He’d better watch it. All of the SJWs who never bought Smashing Pumpkins albums are now not going to buy Smashing Pumpkins albums. That will show him.

    2. On Thursday, he slammed “socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

      Bernie Sanders actually spent the majority of his political career calling himself a Socialist. WTF do you need scare-quotes for?

    3. I would like to see a more in depth, snarky piece about an entertainer’s political opinions.

      80% of the piece is the Author taking one or two sentences from Corgan and then expanding them into a wildly exaggerated stereotype of some firebreathing conservative reactonary racist god-botherer demanding “Artistic Censorship”

      (that’s what ‘disagreeing’ with the contemporary left means)

      1. She is working on becoming TDB’s next foreign correspondent. 27-year-old’s, dude.

  14. I am sympathetic to the observation that skim milk lacks more than just the fat. The process removes vitamin A and this isn’t inherently obvious.

    That said, if the nutritional label shows that whole milk has 20% RDA vitamin a, or whatever, and all natural skim milk has 0, then that should be enough information.

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  16. Tell me this isn’t a troll:

    Another commenter wrote that no food should be labeled as natural if “it has been processed and put into a container.”

    C’mon, gang. ‘Fess up. Which one of you submitted this one?

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  19. I used to be sympathetic to “let the courts decide” re more issues than I am now. Many libertarians have promoted judge-made law over regulatory law, but regulatory law has some advantages if it’s done properly. With judge-made law, issues are decided between parties in controversy; it’s not clear to me that that’ll produce better results on avg. than administrative procedures that can decide issues in advance with input from people who aren’t necessarily parties to a case.

    The issue at hand here is whether a certain commonly-used word should have a legal meaning at all. Either judicial or regulatory process could decide either “yes” or “no”, as well as the details in the case of “yes”. I’d say the word “natural” is too far gone & in too wide use to have a legal meaning attached to it now. Better for some ass’n to make up a word or mark that they can own.

  20. I also thought they should consult dictionaries on the words “spouse”, “married”, etc. to decide claims of same-sex marriage.

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