According to a new national survey by the Consumer Reports' National Research Center, 59 per cent of consumers check to see if the products they are buying are 'natural', despite there being no federal or third-party verified label for this term. Moreover, while a majority of people think that the 'natural' label actually carries specific benefits, an even greater percentage of consumers think it should.
Consumer Reports survey also revealed that more than eight out of 10 consumers believe that packaged foods carrying the 'natural' label should come from food that contains ingredients grown without pesticides (86 per cent), do not include artificial ingredients (87 per cent), and do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs; 85 per cent), reinforcing a wide gap between consumer reality and consumer expectations.
Consumer Reports is seeking to close that gap by calling for a ban on the 'natural' label on food as part of a campaign being done in partnership with TakePart, a social action platform.
Consumer Reports' poll also reveals new data on what consumers expect from a wide range of food labels, including 'fair trade', 'humane', 'organic', 'raised without antibiotics', and 'country of origin'.
Urvashi Rangan, PhD, Executive Director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center said: "Our findings show consumers expect much more from 'natural' food labels and that there is a strong consumer mandate for better food production practices in general and food label standards that meet a higher bar.
"Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the 'natural' food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the 'natural' label because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing, and deceptive. We truly don't believe there is a way to define it that will meet all of consumers' expectations."
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not developed a formal definition for use of the term 'natural' or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if 'nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food' – though these are still found extensively in 'natural'-labelled foods. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat and poultry, says that a product is 'natural' if it contains 'no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product'.
The Consumer Reports national survey shows that consumers believe the label means and should mean far more than these narrow definitions.
Dr Rangan added: "Let's clean up the green noise in the food label marketplace so Americans can get what they want: truthful labels that represent important and better food production systems. Our new campaign also promotes credible labels that underscore a more sustainable system and will decode phony labels that cloud the marketplace."
Consumer Reports' poll also shows that a range of environmental, safety and social concerns are imperative to most US consumers when purchasing food, including supporting local farmers (92 per cent), protecting the environment from chemicals (89 per cent), reducing exposure to pesticides (87 per cent), fair conditions for workers (86 per cent), good living conditions for animals (80 per cent), and reducing antibiotic use in food (78 per cent).
Other key findings from the Consumer Reports National Research Center Survey include:
- Fair trade. About 80 per cent of consumers will pay more for fruits and vegetables produced by workers under fair wage and working conditions; and about one-third of consumers would even pay 50 cents or more per pound.
- Animal welfare. The majority of consumers think the humanely raised claim on eggs, dairy and meat should mean that the farm was inspected to verify this claim (92 per cent), the animals had adequate living space (90 per cent), the animals were slaughtered humanely (88 per cent), and the animals went outdoors (79 per cent). Currently, the 'humanely raised' label does not require that the farm was inspected, and there are no standards for ensuring animals had adequate living space, were able to go outdoors, or were slaughtered humanely.
- Antibiotic use. While nearly seven out of 10 Americans (65 per cent) correctly think the 'raised without antibiotics' means that no antibiotics were used; a sizable portion (31 per cent) of consumers mistakenly think this label means no other drugs were used in addition to antibiotics. In addition, if an animal was routinely given antibiotics, the vast majority of consumers (83 per cent) demand that the government require that this meat be labeled as 'raised with antibiotics'.
- Labelling GMOs. Nine out of 10 Americans think that before genetically engineered (GE) food is sold, it should be labeled accordingly (92 per cent) and meet long-term safety standards set by the government (92 per cent). Similarly, nine out of 10 of Americans specifically agree that the government should require that GE salmon be labeled before it is sold (92 per cent). In addition, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of consumers say that it is crucial for them to avoid GE ingredients when purchasing food.
- Organic. Nine out of 10 consumers demand that the 'organic' label on packaged or processed foods should mean no toxic pesticides were used (91 per cent), no artificial materials were used during processing (91 per cent), no artificial ingredients were used (89 per cent), and no GMOs were used (88 per cent). The 'organic' label is verified and backed by comprehensive federal standards that prohibit GMOs and nearly all toxic pesticides, artificial processing aids and ingredients. While there is room for improvement, the 'organic' label already largely meets consumer expectations.
- Country of Origin. Nine out of 10 Americans want food labels to reflect country or origin (92 per cent) and want to know if their meat is from outside the US (90 per cent).
Consumer Reports' new public education effort and petition drive to ban the 'natural' label is aimed at pressuring the government to stop giving industry permission to label products as 'natural'.
Consumer Reports will deliver its official petition to the government, and the campaign will culminate in a day-long conference on labelling at City Hall in San Francisco on 19 September.
Over the coming months, Consumer Reports will partner with TakePart in an ongoing series on its site called 'Know your food, know your labels' that will look at a wide array of food labelling concerns, ranging from well-defined terms like 'organic' to newer terms like 'humane' or 'fair trade' where some labels are meaningful and some are not, to those labels that are not worth consumers' premium dollars.