Though the pet food term “natural” has an official definition through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I don’t think anyone would disagree that when used as a marketing claim, the meaning of the term can vary widely depending on the pet food brand and consumer perception.

Consumer confusion over pet food label claims such as “all natural” or “from nature” has even led to lawsuits against pet food companies – perhaps unfounded and unfair, but these are terms that can trigger legal action because they may imply a wholesomeness or health effect that the consumer doesn’t perceive in the product itself, said Michael Annis, partner with law firm Husch Blackwell.

At the same time, the natural claim often still attracts pet food buyers; in a December 2018 survey, Luminer Converting Group found 45% of U.S. pet owners said they were more inclined to purchase a pet food labeled as natural. That’s a fine line for pet food brands to walk.

Cautionary tales for pet food producers?

If it’s any consolation, human food companies have to walk the same line and also face class-action consumer lawsuits. They may be at even more of a disadvantage, because there is no official FDA definition for the “natural” claim on food labels. Plus, newer research shows that, even when a definition exists, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) definition for natural meat, consumers may not understand it. This could provide insights – not to mention a few cautionary tales – for pet food brands.

The study, conducted also in December 2018 by Purdue University professor Jayson L. Lusk, Ph.D., was based on a nationwide, online survey of nearly 1,300 U.S. consumers who were responsible for at least half of their households’ grocery shopping. Survey questions were intended to gather information about respondents’ perceptions of the "natural" term and gauge their regulatory preferences.

In reporting his findings in the July 2019 issue of Food Technology, Lusk explained the first survey question was open ended, asking respondents, “What does it mean to you for a food to be called ‘natural’?” The most common responses were related to use of the word “artificial” (10%), followed closely by “additive” at 9%, “organic” at 7%, “added” at 6.5% and “processed” at 5.6%. Interestingly, only 3% mentioned “GMO” or “genetic.”

Not surprising but possibly concerning – including for pet food companies – was that a “non-trivial share of respondents suggested the word was meaningless, marketing hype or that they did not know what the word meant (8.7% said the word meant ‘nothing’),” Lusk wrote. Perhaps consumers are starting to reject use of the term?

Further insights from human food

When asked a follow-up, guided question providing 11 possible definitions for “natural” (and asked to choose the three that most applied), the top choices were “no preservatives or additives” (58.8%) and “no hormones or antibiotics” (53.5%), with a drop-off after that to “no pesticide residues” (37.7%). Another interesting finding: Only 29.4% of respondents chose “fresh” as a definition; “organic” (26%), “close to nature” (22.8%) and “few added ingredients” (22.3%) also ranked lower.

A question about preferences for regulation of natural claims on foods also yielded noteworthy responses. While nearly two-thirds of respondents said they thought FDA should regulate use of the term “natural” by requiring companies to follow a consistent, uniform definition, less than half (44.4%) said they highly trust or “somewhat highly trust” FDA to define the term in a way that might help them make food choices.

And, when asked about their knowledge of an actual definition for natural – the USDA one for natural meat – only 26.6% chose the correct definition, which is, simply, “minimally processed.” More than 30% instead chose “no hormones,” while 23.8% chose “no antibiotics.”

“These data suggest more than half of respondents are misled by the USDA definition of natural, a result supported by the findings of Syrengelas et al. (2018),” Lusk wrote. “Such findings suggest the possibility for consumers to be misled by natural labels, even if defined by FDA, and suggest the need for whatever definition is adopted to accompany natural claims.”

A cautionary tale indeed.

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dphillips@wattglobal.com