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November 20, 2012

Slate: Government shouldn't regulate which foods are 'natural'

Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers are made from flour, oil, milk, and salt, and not much else. The cheddar variety is "baked with real cheese" and contains no artificial preservatives. But are these crucian crackers really "natural," as the package claims? Or are they fishy Frankenfoods?

Last week a woman in Colorado sued the Pepperidge farmers over what she said were bogus claims about their Goldfish. The company had "mistakenly or misleadingly represented that its Cheddar Goldfish crackers are 'Natural,' " she complained in her complaint, "when it fact, they are not." Since the soybean oil used in the snacks is made from genetically modified crops, and since those crops "contain genes and/or DNA that would not normally be in them," she concluded that the Goldfish "are thus unnatural."

The lawsuit came just days after the defeat of California's Proposition 37, which would have enshrined the reasoning behind her complaint into law. Prop. 37 said that any foodstuff made with genetically modified organisms should be identified as such with a cautionary phrase plastered on its packaging, and also that it could not be marketed as "natural." If the law had passed, it would have made producers add one phrase and take away another. It would have legislated what food was and also what it wasn't.

But the debate surrounding Prop. 37 showed how slippery these sorts of rules can be. The proposition's wording made it sound like "natural" claims would have been banned not just from GMOs, but from any processed food at all. A nonpartisan analysis said the prohibition could be applied to any edible that had been canned, smoked, pressed, cooked, frozen, dried, fermented, or milled. No more natural sun-dried raisins. No more natural sauerkraut.

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