A new industry standard currently under development by the Natural Products Association (NPA) is set to help fill what many see as a troublesome gap in the market. Sometime next year, the trade association plans to roll out a definition and certification program for some “natural” food products. Building on the success of its existing Home Care and Personal Care Natural Seal Certification programs, this new program is markedly more ambitious, according to Cara Welch, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for NPA. It’s a timely concept as well, given the glut of conflicting and dubious “natural” claims among food products today.

The first product groupings for which NPA is developing natural food standards are snacks/cereals and meat/poultry. “I honestly think that the consumer really wants this right now, so it’s important to get it out there for consumers to have assurance that their product is truly natural,” Welch says, adding that this benefit should extend to retailers’ confidence in what they are stocking. Additional categories are planned for development at a later date, and these include dairy, pet food, produce and beverages, according to Welch. She says that while the standard may not ultimately encompass all types of food, NPA intends to see where the process leads them with these initial categories and progress from there.

The difficulty of a natural food standard, as opposed to more limited areas like home care, begins with how to reconcile the requirements for different food categories with each other, and how to create a stringent yet attainable standard for what is “natural”. Looking at the two launch categories, Welch says, “What may be feasible for one, may be completely impossible for the other.” Similarly, it will not help the industry, she says, to establish a standard that is impossible to reach in general.

Like its previous standards, the NPA’s food standard will revolve around a general definition of “natural” in this context, which is being constructed with the help of industry parties that NPA has enlisted. This will be accompanied by lists of acceptable and unacceptable ingredients, meant to serve as a quick reference guide for companies trying to meet the standard. This aspect, too, is under development, and Welch emphasizes that companies interested in the standard, NPA members or not, are encouraged to provide input.

A basic framework for the definition begins with the concepts of natural sourcing and natural processing. Any manufacturing process that adheres to these principles should result in a “natural” end product. Welch describes natural sourcing as the easy part, whereas the sticking point is what exactly defines natural processing. This involves which processes, reagents and inputs are allowed during manufacture, and a consideration of whether consumers will see the resultant products as natural.

The NPA uses science as a guide for its standards, and strives to allow for changes in technology and to adapt to innovation. This flexibility makes for a standard that is accepting of certain borderline ingredients or processes, until better and perhaps more natural options come about. “Generally, we would like to prohibit all synthetic solvent use. But, it’s very common to have a soy extract that requires the use of hexane in the process,” Welch says for example.

Questions of where to draw the line in cases like this, and which ingredients need to be specifically prohibited, are being addressed at this stage of the standard’s development. One possibility described by Welch involves the temporary allowance of an ingredient or process, along with a notice that it will undergo review at some point in the future. This review may, for example, be set for two years down the line, and will serve to alert industry of the need to develop alternatives.

The route to certification under the new standard is yet to be determined. Whether it will require onsite audits, or will follow the model of NPA’s previous standards that require documentation only audits, remains to be seen. “I’m not sure if that’s how it will work with food. Again, food is a different beast altogether,” Welch says. It will, in any case, be necessary to have a third party audit to acquire the certification.

The collection of retailers, manufacturers and suppliers NPA is collaborating with each provide important perspective to the process. “They really have an idea, between the three of them, what the consumer considers to be natural, which is very important of course, but also what is even feasible for the industry to do,” says Welch, who adds that development is all hands on deck at this point. “What we’re looking for are companies, manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, too, who are in the natural food industry, and looking to really put forth the effort that is required to put out a natural food standard,” she says.

The first of half 2012 is the organization's optimistic timetable for the standard’s launch. Since many believe the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will never step up to the plate with a natural food standard, Welch notes the importance of giving the public and the industry an example to compare and aspire to.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2012 (online 11/16/11)