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New trade organization forms with mission to define what 'natural' means

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By Hank Schultz

Last updated on 12-Aug-2014 at 19:58 GMT

What does 'natural' mean when applied to a food or a supplement? The new Organic and Natural Health Alliance aims to find out.
What does 'natural' mean when applied to a food or a supplement? The new Organic and Natural Health Alliance aims to find out.

A new trade organization has formed with the mission to define what 'natural' means.  The nascent Organic and Natural Health Alliance (ONHA) plans to go about defining that attribute in a way that is unique in the natural products business in that it will take consumers’ views into account, one of the organization’s founders said.


“It’s a trade association that engages consumers on a level playing field. That is highly unique in this area,” Karen Howard, ONHA director, told NutraIngredients-USA.

Howard said the organization will have its official launch at the Supply Side West trade show in Las Vegas in October.  There the organization will hold the first of a series of meetings with stakeholders on the thorny issue of defining what ‘natural’ means and developing a way to implement that definition in the marketplace. But Howard emphasized that the group wants the process to as above board as possible and seeks to engage consumers who might be passionate about what they think ‘natural’ means, even if they might be ignorant of most of the details of the operations of food and dietary supplements businesses.

“The process we are going to use is going to be transparent,” Howard said. “The sessions we will have on this topic will be open.”

Non-organic ingredients

Some of those accommodations that might seem like insider baseball to uninformed consumers have a real grounding in the hard facts of large-scale food and dietary supplement manufacture.  The list of technically non-organic trace ingredients and excipients that can be included in an ‘organic’ product are an example that comes to mind. These constiuents are allowed in circumstances where no organic alternative is available, but to some uniformed consumers this can look like a shady deal cut with big capital, a way in which the organic certification fell short of its promise.

How will this look for the ‘natural’ definition?  Will the definition reach back into the supply chain to find inputs that don’t meet the standard? How far will that delving go? These questions will all be part of the process, Howard said.

“When it comes to food, the organic standard is the core standard. The standard for natural will be different for each of the industries we are going after.  We anticipate it will take about 90 days to define a natural standard for food,” she said.

Trade organization Balkanization

The natural products business in the United States already has a number of trade organizations, including the Natural Products Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the United Natural Products Alliance and the American Herbal Products Association chief among them. Throw in other organizations such as the Consumer Health Products Alliance and the Alliance for Natural Health and you have a Babel that is deplored by national policy makers. To whom should one listen? Why is it necessary to add another voice? Wouldn’t this effort be better served as a committee in one of the existing organizations? Howard said she and the members of her board (which includes attorneys Todd Harrison of the Venable law firm and Joe Sandler, who represents the Organic Consumers Association) are definite that a new organization, one untainted by prior associations or agendas, is called for.

“Everyone has had the chance to do do this work and they haven’t done it. Consumers are just really very confused about what natural means. Certainly the courts are having their struggles with the meaning. And FDA has made it abundantly clear that they are not going to take this on at the moment,”  Howard said.

Consumer culture

Including consumers in the process will dramatically alter the organization’s culture, Howard said. Trade organizations are primarily focused on representing their members’ interests with government, and keeping the long arm of the regulators at bay.  They can sometimes be put in awkward positions when powerful members take actions that might seem at cross purposes to the organization’s mission statement. In the case of OHNA, listening to what consumers think and want will be part of the organization’s DNA, Howard said.

“We won’t be unwilling to tackle controversional issues. One of the things that is really different about OHNA is that we will have access to four million consumers to talk to. The power of the consumer is always something that drives business decisions. The companies that come on board need to understand the commitment they will be making to transparency and to process. There will be some companies that will not want to participate because it will be too hard for them,” Howard said.

Define natural to defend organic

In the end, one of the key goals of the organization will be to define natural as a way to defend the existing organic certification, Howard said. For a number of years companies have used the term very loosely to the point where it means little. Yet according to Mintel data use of natural claims remains ubiquitous even in the face of lawsuits over the use of the term that have included such high profile defendants as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Kashi.

“The term ‘natural’ is cetainly threatening the credibility of the organic label. We want to support the organic label in any way we can,” Howard said.

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