The trade organization representing the nation’s largest food and beverage companies wants permission to label as “natural” products that contain genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy, canola and sugar, according to a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration.
In the letter dated Dec. 5, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said it planned to petition the agency to issue a regulation that would allow foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled “natural.”
Use of the term “natural” is now generating battles similar to previous fights over terms like organic, amid initiatives in several states that seek to label foods in a more transparent way. Last summer, Connecticut passed legislation on labeling that would make it illegal to use the word “natural” on the packaging of any food product containing biotech ingredients, and the governor signed it on Dec. 11.
The New York Times obtained the letter from the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization in Washington that favors labeling, and a spokesman for the grocery association confirmed its authenticity.
But the spokesman, Brian Kennedy, said no one from the association was available to comment because of holiday travel.
Scott Faber, vice president of the Environmental Working Group, called the association’s request “audacious.” He added, “It’s like they’re trying to get the government to say night is day and black is white.”
The association’s request was sent just weeks before the end of the year, when the F.D.A. is expected to establish voluntary guidelines for the labeling of foods containing biotech ingredients, based on the priorities it has identified for itself. An agency spokeswoman, Theresa Eisenman, said in an email that she could not speculate on what action the F.D.A. might take.
Sales of foods certified as organic and labeled “natural” are growing at a faster pace than sales in other categories. At the same time, companies like Chobani and Kellogg are facing lawsuits over their use of the word “natural” on processed foods that contain chemicals and other artificial ingredients.
As a result, a number of companies have quietly removed the word from their labels. PepsiCo, for instance, in August settled a lawsuit over its use of the phrases “All Natural,” “All Natural Fruit” and “Non-GMO” on bottles of Naked juices. It said the phrases were intended to describe the fruits and vegetables in its juices only, and not “the vitamin boost added to some Naked beverages.”
It agreed to pay consumers a total of $9 million and take the “All Natural” phrase off Naked packaging, but it continues to use the phrase “non-GMO” although its juices are not certified as such.
The grocery association said there were 65 similar class-action suits pending around the country.
At the same time, the group noted, legislatures in 26 states are pondering whether foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled. “Consumers and the food industry would all benefit from uniform legal requirements and the consistent outcomes that result from federal regulations, rather than state-by-state dictates through court decisions or state or local legislation,” the group said in its letter.
Megan Westlake, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, a group that certifies that products do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, said: “This is an area where consumer interest and attention is growing rapidly and constantly changing, and it would be completely unacceptable to push something through now without updated information.”
The NPD Group, a consumer research firm, has found that all of the news about efforts to label foods with G.M.O. ingredients, ranging from state ballot and legislative measures to protest marches, has increased consumer awareness of the issue.