Posted November 11, 2013
Some food companies are dropping their “natural” or “all natural” labels due to uncertainty about the definition of the term and an increase in lawsuits over the issue, according to an article by Mike Esterl of the Wall Street Journal, available here.
Foods carrying the “natural” label made over $40 billion in U.S. retail sales over the past year, second only to foods labeled “low fat.” 
The difficulty with the term “natural” on a food label is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not provide a definition.  The FDA’s policy considers “natural” to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”  The FDA says it is “difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer a product of the earth.”
The Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013, H.R. 3147, would require the FDA to establish a standard nutrition labeling system and set guidelines for the use of the term “natural.”  The bill was introduced in September by Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). 
Several class action lawsuits have alleged that the use of “natural or “all natural” on food product labels is false or misleading under state law, according to an article by the Washington Legal Foundation and Forbes available here.
In the recent months, four courts have issued decisions favorable to defendants on the use of “natural” labels.  In Kane v. Chobani, Judge Koh of the Northern District of California dismissed a claim because the yogurt labels clearly disclosed the use of fruit or vegetable concentrate and plaintiffs could not have been misled.  In Pelayo v. Nestle USA, Judge Walter of the Central District of California dismissed with prejudice claims that “all natural” labels on 13 Buitoni products were deceptive because they contained xantham gum and soy lechthin.  In Astiana v. Kashi Company, Judge Huff of the Southern District of California denied the certification of a class.  In Thurston v. Bear Naked, Judge Huff also rejected certification on a class.


For more information on food labeling, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.