In the ag business, farmers know the 'natural' label used by food companies is more of a marketing tool than anything else. Turns out Consumer Reports National Research Center agrees. The organization released a poll this week revealing that 59% of consumers check to see if products they're buying are "natural" despite "there being no federal or third-party verified label for this term," the organization says.
The poll, conducted by phone, was administered by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J. The survey sample included 1,004 adults and half the respondents were women. The respondents were selected by random-digital dialing. Conducted April 17 to 21, the group says "data were statistically weighted so that respondents in the survey were demographically and geographically representative of the U.S. population.
The group notes that not only do a majority of consumers polled think the natural label actually carries specific benefits, an even greater number of consumers think it should. The survey revealed that more than 8 out of 10 consumers believe that packaged foods labeled "natural" should come from food that contains ingredients grown without pesticides, don't include artificial ingredients and do not contain genetically modified organisms. That information reinforces "a wide gap between consumer reality and consumer expectations," the group says.
The organization's answer: ban the "natural" label. The organization has joined with TakePart, a social action platform, to ban the use of the label. You can learn more about what the group wants by visiting takepart.com/food-labels.
That Consumer Report's poll shows 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."
In a media release announcing poll results, Urashi Rangan, executive director, Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, says: "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 consumer's expectations."
Consumer Reports says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't developed a formal definition of the term "natural" yet the agency does not object 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 not normally expected to be in the food." USDA says a product is "natural" if it contains "no artificial ingredients 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."
It's that consumer perception that "natural" means more that has Consumer Reports pushing ahead with its campaign. They call the labeling "green noise" and ending the use of the term "natural" would give consumers "truthful labels that represent important and better food production systems," Rangan says.
More poll results >>
The poll also shows a range of environmental safety and social concerns are imperative to most U.S. consumers that purchasing food, including supporting local farmers (92%), protecting the environment from chemicals (89%), reducing exposure to pesticides (87%), fair conditions for workers (86%), good living conditions for animals (80%) and reducing antibiotic use in food (78%).
Here are other key findings in the survey, according to a media release from the organization:
FAIR TRADE. About 80% 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%), the animals had adequate living space (90%), the animals were slaughtered humanely (88%), and the animals went outdoors (79%). 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 7 out of 10 Americans (65%) correctly think the “raised without antibiotics” means that no antibiotics were used; a sizable portion (31%) 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%) demand that the government require that this meat be labeled as “raised with antibiotics.”
LABELING GMOS. Nine out of 10 Americans think that before genetically engineered (GE) food is sold, it should be labeled accordingly (92%) and meet long-term safety standards set by the government (92%). Similarly, nine out of 10 of Americans specifically agree that the government should require that GE salmon be labeled before it is sold (92%). In addition, nearly three-quarters (72%) 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%), no artificial materials were used during processing (91%), no artificial ingredients were used (89%), and no GMOs were used (88%). 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%) and want to know if their meat is from outside the U.S. (90%).
These results offer insight into a number of key trends Consumer Reports has promoted over the past few years - including GMO labeling.