In a utopian world, labels would simply and clearly disclose a food’s ingredients, nutrition facts, and how and where the product was made. But despite federal laws governing some food-labeling aspects (such as the Nutrition Facts panel and food-allergy warnings), a lot of packaging info remains foggy.
To counteract confusion and misinformation, third-party badges, seals, and labels promising transparency, traceability, and authenticity are on the rise. Here’s some background on the big issues.
“Natural” on the ropes
The first sticky wicket: “Natural” means, technically and legally, absolutely nothing. In 1993, the FDA, after reviewing “a wide range” of comments on the meaning of “natural,” declined to define the term and chose merely to maintain its policy not to restrict its use “except for added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.” (Vague enough for you?)
Today, in the absence of clear legislation, high-profile brands are coming under fire from disgruntled consumer groups claiming that “all natural” ain’t all that. Popchips just shelled out $2.4 million over its “all-natural” claim; in May, Kashi and Bear Naked agreed to settlements and to stop using the terms “all natural” and “nothing artificial” in products that contain synthetic ingredients such as hexane-processed soy compounds, ascorbic acid, and sodium phosphate. In the biggest settlement to date, Pepsi’s Naked Juice paid $9 million in 2013 for similar offenses. (So far, no “all-natural” suit has gone to trial.)
The latest news: In July, the newly formed Organic and Natural Health Association (ONHA), a coalition of consumer and business experts, announced plans to define “natural” and provide a certification program for foods, cosmetics, personal care items, and pet products. The urgency is obvious, says ONHA director and spokesperson Karen Howard: “Consumers are so confused, and the courts are dealing with this on such a regular basis.”