John Bode is president and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association. He has been involved in every significant change in federal food law since the 1981 Farm Bill. In private practice, he counseled leading food and agriculture trade associations and companies regarding legislative and regulatory policy advocacy, regulatory compliance and congressional investigations. He has also served as lead counsel for several of the nation’s largest food recalls and general counsel for leading food trade associations.
Federal regulation of food labels has generally meant development of obscure definitions, which food companies creatively accommodate so that they may use the term or “claim” on their products with the benefit of regulatory certainty. That would be sufficient if government definitions were based on what consumers think these terms mean. Regrettably, that has rarely been the case.
The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to consider changes to their definition of the term “healthy” when used on food labels. That is a good thing. A major new consumer perception survey, conducted by Purdue’s Jayson Lusk, Ph.D. and commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association, shows that the current definition used by FDA, which considers only select nutritional criteria, fails to include factors that nearly half of consumers think “healthy” means, such as use of pesticides or food additives. That nutritional criteria, which doesn't even consider the amount of sugars in food, is woefully incomplete.
Government regulation is intended to ensure labels are not “false or misleading,” so the starting point for regulating a claim should be, “What do consumers think the claim means?” This may seem simple, but consumer understanding of broad terms can vary greatly and be influenced by the context in which the terms are used. Lusk’s findings about “healthy” claims on food products include:
More than half of consumers believed that one’s overall diet determines healthiness and the term is not appropriately applied to a single food.
Of particular public health importance, about 40% of consumers thought that a “healthy” label claim implied that they should increase consumption of the food and 15% thought the label meant they could eat all that they wanted.
Consumers thought that other factors should be taken into consideration to determine if products are "healthy," like sugar content (23.7%), use of hormones or antibiotics (23.5%), pesticide residues (18.4%) and use of preservatives (15.9%).
FDA should start its effort to regulate “healthy” by committing to minimize the number of consumers who would be misled by the authorized claim. As the representative of leading producers of sugars, it is clear to me that FDA should expand the nutritional criteria to at least include a high amount of sugars as a disqualifier. Beyond that, FDA should require that when the claim is used, an accompanying statement must be provided to avoid consumer misunderstanding of the claim. For example, “healthy” might be accompanied by, “Based only on fat, sodium and sugar content. Consume in moderation.”
Lusk’s survey also probed consumer understanding of “natural” claims on food products. FDA has informed industry, though not through regulation, that it permits “natural” claims when no artificial ingredients have been included. USDA allows a “natural” claim on meat and poultry products with no artificial ingredients that have also been “minimally processed.” Holding aside the confusion caused by food label definitions that vary by federal agency, Lusk’s survey demonstrates that neither of these definitions is aligned with consumer expectations. He found:
High levels of agreement that “natural” foods are “healthier” (53%), “safer to eat” (47%), and “better for the environment” (45%) were observed, despite an absence of scientific support for such conclusions.
There was little consumer agreement that food processing, beyond “wash/clean/chop/grind/slice” is “natural.”
Modern agricultural practices were almost universally viewed as “not natural,” with high levels of skepticism expressed toward all pesticide use and all genetic improvement (including hybridization).
Very few foods are grown and processed in a manner consistent with consumer expectations for “natural.” FDA and USDA should undertake a joint rulemaking effort to develop a common definition for “natural” claims, striving to minimize the number of consumers who would be misled by the claim. Lusk’s data suggests a “natural” claim should be limited to raw commodities that have received no more processing than “wash/clean/chop/grind/slice” and an accompanying statement should advise the consumer that this does not indicate that the product is healthier, safer, or better for the environment.
Requiring such unvarnished honesty would likely reduce the use of these claims, but when they are used, they would be a more forthright communication with consumers about the food they eat. By defining terms based on the way consumers understand them, and requiring clarification to avoid misunderstanding, FDA could increase transparency and build public trust.