Here’s the problem: “The majority believe ‘natural’ foods adhere to the same requirements as ‘organic’ foods,” said Christine Bushway, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association. How can the organics industry clear up consumer confusion? What is the way forward? These questions are on the minds of just about everyone, from OTA board members and policy makers to media members and retailers and manufacturers.

Today’s education session, “Organic and Natural: Finding the Way Forward,” brought together a panel of five experts to offer their solutions. Most of the panelists rejected the idea of creating a federal definition for “natural.” Why? For one, developing a national standard to define “natural” may benefit consumers but will “take many, many years,” said Michael Movitz, vice president of business development for Schaumburg, Ill.-based SPINS, a market research firm for the natural products industry. In the interest of time and clarity, most panelists recommended another, perhaps controversial, answer: Merge “organic” with “natural” or eliminate “natural” entirely.

According to Dag Falck, organic program manager for Canada-based Nature’s Path, “‘natural’ is not a movement like ‘organic.’ It’s a label,” he said. Although he knows the differences between the two terms, he’s aware that consumers don’t. His solution: “Natural should be organic because that’s what the consumer already thinks. I know it’s a radical approach and won’t happen overnight, but maybe that’s the most logical step.” According to Falck, the biggest threat to organic is losing sales to substitution. “If we define what ‘natural’ means, is there room in the marketplace for a conventional product, a natural product and an organic product?” he asked. “Is it helping customers?”

Nicole Dawes, cofounder and chief executive officer of Barnstable, Mass.-based Late July Organic Snacks, feels an urgency to resolve the issue because, she says, “the industry’s ‘organic’ message is being co-opted by ‘natural,’ and I believe we need to draw a line in the sand.” She offered a few ways to do so, including prohibiting “all natural” and other subjective terms because the food and beverage industry has already defined “organic.” She also suggested simplifying the organic tiers by putting percentages of organic ingredients on the green USDA Organic seals that adorn products instead of in another place on product labels.

Chris Ely, cofounder of Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate Farms, offered an alternative perspective because meat goes through a different regulatory process from other product types. For example, Applegate Farms has to submit all labels to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service for approval. Still, the murky definition of “natural” confuses even his customers. “[FSIS has] a definition for ‘natural,’ but it doesn’t really mean anything,” Ely said. In a controversial move, his company asked the USDA to better define “natural.” In the meantime, he recommends companies provide clear and consistent product labeling and offer retailers in-store information as the way to educate customers.

Consumer education also was on the mind of Christine Bushway, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association. “We have new consumers every day, so we’re constantly having to educate.” To that end, the OTA will conduct annual major media tours and will add at least three new information services geared at key audiences.

In this fast-paced session, panelists had time to present only outlines of their ideas. But they planted the seeds of what could ultimately grow into solutions to the "natural" versus "organic" conundrum.