Responsible marketing of food and beverage products is increasingly coming under the spotlight as competition gets fiercer, expectations fly higher and regulations get tighter. As this happens, it becomes more and more risky to take advantage of gray areas of information in order to increase a product's marketing appeal - because sooner or later the questions will be asked and the fingers will start pointing. The battle for 'natural'
The most recent example of this occurred last week in the US, when the nation's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that products containing the sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) should not be called 'natural'. The comments, made to this publication, were not the declaration of a new or changed policy. They were simply a clear answer to a question that had not before been asked; a question that, when left unanswered, allowed leeway for the use of an attractive 'natural' label on foods and drinks made with HFCS. During the time that there was no clear answer, manufacturers were generally in a position to receive the benefit of the doubt, and get away with little more than a slap on the wrist. Last year, for example, Cadbury Schweppes agreed to change the label on its 'natural' HFCS-containing 7UP drink after it was faced with a lawsuit for deceptive advertising, filed by consumer activists CSPI. The company withdrew the label claim, stating that "we know many consumers are interested in a wide variety of natural products and ingredients, but also that many, varied opinions on labeling of all natural products exist". Essentially though, the only real opinion that counts is that of the regulator - FDA. Had anyone asked, they would have received FDA's answer: "The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our (…) policy regarding the use of the term 'natural'. Consequently, we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS." When a blind eye gets risky
However, worse than not asking - and benefiting in the interim - is an attempt to deny or oppose a clarification when it is finally provided. The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which represents the US corn industry, responded to FDA's clarification by stating that this "reflects only the personal view of that one (FDA) employee who was responding to a reporter's question". "In fact," it added, "the official FDA position on products made with HFCS is unchanged, and those products can be described as 'natural' under current regulations." Although FDA would not comment on the CRA statement, it reaffirmed that the information it provided to us was correct. An FDA spokesperson added: "If anyone is unclear as to the appropriateness of using the term 'natural' on their product then they should contact FDA." Rather than be drawn into a useless debate, we would urge any companies with doubt to do just that. It may be time to stand up to the facts and get out while still ahead. Dismissing FDA comments regardless of how or where they were made would be reckless and ultimately more damaging than a marketing hit. LorraineHeller is a specialist writer on food industry issues. If you would like to comment on this article, please write to lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com