The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Sept. 11 it will solicit further public comment as the agency seeks to define the conditions under which it will permit the voluntary claim "natural" to be used in the labeling of meat and poultry products. The required advance notice of proposed rulemaking subsequently was published in the Federal Register Sept. 14.

The FSIS said it required comments to help clarify and resolve issues surrounding the "natural" claim, including how best to coordinate the agency’s regulation of claims with the Agricultural Marketing Service’s voluntary "naturally raised" marketing claim standard. The FSIS said it believed public comment would facilitate the emergence of a consensus on the meaning of "natural" and would allow the agency to move quickly to a proposed rule.

The agency’s previous request for input from the food industry and public, made in October 2006, resulted in a flurry of more than 12,000 comments that revealed wide differences in views regarding how "natural" should be defined or whether there even was a need to revise the current definition used by the FSIS. Some sought strict labeling guidance with a few even suggesting the criteria for the "natural" claim should extend back to the farm and how the animals were raised. Others noted the need for flexibility and case-by-case FSIS decisions in the light of new food technologies and ingredients that emerged in the past 27 years since the agency first set requirements for a "natural" claim.

The time has come

The stakes in the rulemaking process were high given the rapid expansion in the "natural" foods category. Category sales in the segment (including "natural" meat and poultry products) aggregated $21.5 billion in 2008, up 28 percent from $16.8 billion two years earlier, according to Mintel International, Chicago.

The current FSIS policy states the term "natural" may be used in the labeling of meat and poultry products provided the product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and that the product is not more than minimally processed.

The origins of the policy lie in the agency’s Memo 055 issued in 1982. The Food and Drug Administration updated, but did not fundamentally alter, that basic guidance as it ruled on applications for use of the "natural" claim until 2005, when the agency rescinded Memo 055 and incorporated its policy on "natural" claims in its Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book.

The policy book modified FSIS’s "natural" policy to add a note stating "sugar, sodium lactate (from a corn source) at certain levels and natural flavorings from oleoresins or extractives are acceptable for ‘all natural’ claims. But, the FSIS had to backtrack from the statement a year later when it received evidence that the use of sodium lactate, as well as potassium lactate and calcium lactate, at levels consistent with those approved for flavoring, also may provide an antimicrobial effect.

In the current advance notice for proposed rulemaking, the FSIS asked for public comment on several issues. First, the agency asked whether it should promulgate a new rule to define "natural" or rely on the existing or a revised policy document on "natural" claims.

It asked if it should develop a policy on "natural" claims in which the agency would continue to distinguish products that use ingredients for their antimicrobial effects to inhibit the growth of pathogenic organisms from products that use the same ingredients for preservative effects. The FSIS also requested comment on whether it would be more appropriate for a product that contains multi-functional ingredients derived from "natural" sources to bear an "all natural ingredients" claim rather than a "natural" claim.

The FSIS asked for comments on what consideration should be given to "non-traditional" or advanced food-processing methods when weighing an application for a product’s "natural" claim.

The agency pointed to "significant" interest in "enhanced" products and asked whether it should approve a "natural" claim for products that have been enhanced with solutions that contain "natural" ingredients. It also asked whether raw meat and poultry products enhanced with "natural" ingredients should be allowed to bear an "all natural ingredients" claim instead of a "natural" claim. And because of a large number of comments in the previous round objecting to the addition of any ingredients to meat and poultry products labeled as "natural," the FSIS asked whether the "natural" claim should refer only to raw, single-ingredient meat and poultry products.

Given the number of comments suggesting the "natural" claim should encompass the conditions under which the source animals were raised, the agency asked how it and the AMS might best achieve a consistent approach to the claims "natural" and "naturally raised." The FSIS also asked whether it instead should adhere to its traditional view that the claim "natural" relates only to the finished meat or poultry product.

Finally, the FSIS requested comments on whether its position regarding the use of carbon monoxide in the packaging of meat products is appropriate and should continue to be applied in evaluating requests for approval of "natural" claims. The comment period ends Nov. 19.

Jay Sjerven is senior editor with Food Business News, a sister publication of Meat&Poultry, also published by Sosland Publishing Company.