Are genetically modified foods “all natural”?

For several years, consumers have brought suit against manufacturers of processed foods (for example, bottled teas, granola bars, and cereals) advertised as “all natural.” In these lawsuits, the consumer alleges that the all-natural claim is false and misleading because the foods are not in fact “all natural.” Early cases often focused on the use of high fructose corn syrup in the foods, and more recent cases often focus on the use of genetically modified ingredients.

One defense often raised (with mixed success) by the defendant company is that defining “natural” foods should be left to the Food and Drug Administration. Two decades ago, the FDA observed that “because of resource limitations and other agency priorities,” the FDA had not yet defined “natural” or “all natural,” but acknowledged that doing so could “abate” “the ambiguity” that “results in misleading claims.” To date, though, the FDA, has not undertaken to formulate a definition.

Last summer, the judge presiding over one “all natural” case, Cox v. Gruma Corp., asked the FDA to define “all natural.” (Judges presiding over Barnes v. Campbell Soup and Lewis v. General Mills later made the same request.) Specifically, the judge asked the FDA “whether and in what circumstances food products containing ingredients produced using bio-engineered seed may or may not be labeled “Natural.” This week, the agency responded by declining to provide a substantive answer. The FDA explained that the question extended beyond genetically modified seed and that providing a definition would require it to undertake notice-and-comment rulemaking.

Meanwhile, in a December 5 letter to the FDA, the Grocery Manufacturers Association informed the agency that it would be submitting a citizen petition in 2014 to formally request that the agency issue a regulation deeming foods containing genetically modified ingredients “natural.”

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