• International Dairy Foods Association backs measure
  • Prospects for bill in the House are uncertain

Processed cheese spreads and shreds couldn’t be called natural under a bill the Senate passed last week.

Food producers have been sued over their use of the term “natural” for cheese and other food. The Food and Drug Administration, which sets labeling rules, says natural foods can’t contain certain additives, but otherwise hasn’t set guidelines.

The Senate bill (S. 2322), passed by voice vote on Dec. 13, would restrict the term. It would define “natural cheese” as cheese as being produced from animal milk or other dairy ingredients in accordance with established cheese making practices. It would ban the use of the term for additional products such as pasteurized process cheese foods, cold pack cheeses, and grated American cheese foods.

The International Dairy Foods Association supports the measure. It would provide more transparency and consistency for consumers “so that they may differentiate ‘natural cheese’ from ‘process cheese’ in the grocery store,” Cary Frye, the group’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, told Bloomberg Government in a statement.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
Kraft brand cheddar cheeses labeled as “natural” on display in a supermarket dairy case.

The label could have an impact on producers’ bottom lines. Consumers will pay an average of 75 cents more for a product labeled as “natural cheese,” a study by University of California Los Angeles professor Dr. Anand V. Bodapati found. It was cited in a class action by consumers who complained about Kraft Heinz Co.’scharacterization of its “Natural Cheese Fat Free Shredded Fat Free Cheddar Cheese,” which included artificial coloring agents. The company declined a request for comment.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose state is the No. 2 milk producing state and home to cheesehead fans of the Green Bay Packers. Sargento Foods Inc., a company that says on its website that its cheeses are natural, is also headquartered in the state. In 2017, Sargento faced a class action over its “natural” label on cheese derived from cows that received genetically modified feed and hormones. The case was stayed in anticipation of an FDA ruling on the term “natural.”

The FDA announced it was revising its rule on the term “natural” on food labels in 2015 but never issued a final rule. It currently bars use of the term “natural” for products that contain added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.

The House hasn’t announced plans to consider the bill, called the “Codifying Useful Regulatory Definitions Act” or “CURD Act.” Rep. Billy Long(R-Mo.) and four members from Wisconsin introduced a similar bill (H.R. 4828) in January that hasn’t been considered by committee.

With less than a week likely left in session, Congress has only a short window to weigh in on cheese terms, a task that may have to wait until next year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sarah Babbage in Washington at sbabbage@bgov.com