So what does the word "natural" mean on a food label? Ask a consumer and you'd be hard pressed to get a focused answer; ask a group of consumers and you'd be sure to get a variety of answers. Yet, Americans line up behind such products and readily purchase them believing that they're more healthful, wholesome and nutritious.
Well, there's a growing movement in Washington to clear the air. A group of 40 U.S. congressmen (38 House representatives and two senators) has sent a letter to Acting USDA Secretary Chuck Conner, challenging the agency for an answer. They call USDA's current regulation of the term "natural" misleading.
The letter cited fresh poultry products, and the fact that current regulations allow processors to add ingredients such as sodium, water and carageenans, or seaweed extracts, and still label the products "natural." They argue that it's misleading for the consumer.
"While we agree that seaweed and sea salt may occur naturally in seawater, these ingredients certainly do not occur naturally in poultry," the letter said.
Legislators also pointed to what they called "serious health implications" of injecting sodium-- comparing a sodium-injected chicken breast with a bag of potato chips.
Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and Charles "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.) led the congressional effort. Also involved were Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The two senators included Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
While clarity is always good, and there certainly needs to be some in the "natural" food arena, and even in the organic sector, this activity could have far-reaching effects.