August 26, 2021

U.S. Lawmakers Introduce the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2021 in the House and Senate: Can the Industry Adjust to a New Natural?

Jessica Griswold

On August 3, 2021, Congress introduced the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2021 (H.R. 4917), a bill proposing to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) to strengthen requirements related to nutrient information on food labels, and for other purposes. The 35-page bill charges the Secretary of Health and Human Services (“Secretary” or “HHS”) with creating a standardized symbol system for front-of-package labels to help consumers make more informed choices. Part of this task requires HHS to “employ an approach that clearly distinguishes between products of greater or lesser nutritional value” and to promulgate regulations that define the terms “natural” and “healthy” on food labels.

Manufacturers commonly use buzzwords like “natural” and “healthy” to market foods to consumers, including those that lack nutrient density and contain artificial ingredients and added sugars in excess of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA”) recommended daily value. Without clear definitions establishing which food products can be legally labeled as “natural” or “healthy,” consumers and health advocates continue to push back on the use of these terms, to no avail. The proposed Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2021—an update to the 2018 version—addresses the use of these highly contentious terms on food labels for the first time since the FDA requested public comments regarding use of the term “natural” in 2015.

Section 4 of the bill would require HHS to consider data relating to consumers’ understanding of the word “natural” and “to exclude, at a minimum, the use of any artificial food or ingredient (including any artificial flavor or added color)” from its definition. In effect, this minimum standard would prevent manufacturers from marketing any food product containing artificial ingredients as “natural” without violating the FDCA.  Similarly, the bill would require HHS to consider added sugar and whole grain content when regulating use of the term “healthy,” specifically excluding  foods containing grains from the definition unless they contain100% whole grains.

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