WASHINGTON — It's a fight that has the nation's largest chicken producers squabbling, Big Sugar and Big Corn skirmishing and Sara Lee mixing it up with Farmer John. Lawmakers, too, have joined the fray, which already is thick with dueling petitions and at least one lawsuit. Meanwhile, government food regulators are uncertain how to proceed.
The question is at face value a simple one: When can food products, from chicken breasts to soda pop, rightfully be labeled as "natural?"
Wrapped up in it, however, are some far trickier questions: Is it ethical to charge for saltwater that increasingly pumps up supermarket chickens? Is the sodium lactate used as a flavoring and preservative in sliced roast beef "natural?" How about the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens sodas?
Equally simple answers appear elusive.
"It's worth bringing in the rabbis to analyze these situations because it's complicated, it's subtle. You can argue from both sides. It has fine distinctions," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The watchdog group's take on the matter is clear: It has threatened to sue soft-drink companies like 7-Up producer Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages for promoting as "100 percent natural" drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
It also has complained that chicken producers are pumping up (and weighing down) their "all-natural" birds with salt water and broth, a growing practice that 40 members of Congress recently called misleading and deceptive.
Poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc. says its marinated chickens are all natural because they contain no artificial ingredients. And its survey work suggests consumers prefer marinated chicken over "conventional chicken" anyway since it's tender and juicier, company spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
Tyson competitors, like Sanderson Farms Inc., say not so fast.
"Under any definition of the term, natural chicken does not contain salt, phosphates, sea salt, preservatives, carrageenan, nor is it pumped with up to 15 percent solution and other ingredients," Lampkin Butts, president and chief operating officer of Sanderson Farms, told a federal hearing last year.
Still, even Tyson supports revisiting the Agriculture Department's definition of "natural." In the mean time, it proposes a two-tier definition that would cover chicken, beef and pork that contains no added ingredients, plus those meats prepared with all-natural ingredients.
Other food companies have chosen their own sides in the debate. They have lodged petitions, comments and lawsuits with the government and are holding out that a definitive answer on what is (and isn't) natural is forthcoming.
At stake is a shot at increasing their share of the estimated $13 billion-a-year market for "natural" foods and beverages _ a market whose 4 percent to 5 percent annual growth outpaces that of the overall grocery category, according to Packaged Facts, a market research company.
Any sort of federal ruling would, alternately, either narrow or broaden current rules and regulations that govern use of the "natural" label.
A critic maintains that the push is a bald-faced bid to manipulate federal policy for financial gain, something the feuding parties are quick to accuse each other of doing, and not to add to the public good.
"What looks like a neutral issue or question, such as the meaning of 'natural,' is not neutral at all," said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who tackles the issue in the recently published "Supercapitalism."
Reich says the issue "has profound competitive consequences. Certain companies _ sometimes whole sectors of a whole industry _ will be advantaged or disadvantaged by how agencies define words that may appear in labels."
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department both say they are weighing how to move forward.
The FDA generally allows foods to be labeled as "natural" if such a claim is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said. Agriculture Department policy roughly mirrors the FDA's, though it adds that "natural" meat and poultry products cannot be more than minimally processed.
That's not good enough for industry.
The Sugar Association, in a February 2006 FDA petition seeking clarity on the issue, claims the original chemical state of sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup _ made by its arch rivals _ is altered so significantly during processing that "the allowance of a 'natural' claim is exceedingly misleading," trade group president and CEO Andrew Briscoe III wrote the agency. The group represents producers of sucrose, made from sugar beets and cane.
The Corn Refiners Association fired back in opposition, saying the sugar industry's claim would draw an unjustified and inconsistent distinction between sucrose and the high-fructose corn syrup its member companies make _ and which presumably would no longer be considered "natural."
"The Sugar Association's petition is a thinly veiled attempt to obtain a marketing advantage for sucrose over (high-fructose corn syrup)," Corn Refiners president Audrae Erickson said in November 2006 comments to the FDA.
Meanwhile, in October 2006, Hormel Foods Corp., the maker of Farmer John and other brands, filed its own "natural" petition with the Agriculture Department, seeking in short to outlaw any natural claim on luncheon and other meats that contain sodium lactate.
The corn-derived additive is used as a flavoring and preservative. Only when a meat product uses sodium lactate as a flavoring, however, can it still be considered for a "natural" label, said Laura Reiser, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's food safety and inspection service, citing a recent department decision.
"The change in the definition of 'natural' creates an exception for sodium lactate that misleads consumers who believe they are buying a product free of chemical preservatives, when they are not," Hormel spokeswoman Julie Craven said.
In January 2007, in clarifying remarks filed with the USDA in support of Hormel's petition, the Sugar Association's Briscoe weighed in and said providing a precise definition of what's natural "would help eliminate misleading competitive practices" _ a clear swipe at his corn-syrup competitors.
Sugar produced from sugar beets and cane has lost ground to high-fructose corn syrup, which now accounts for a majority of the sweeteners shipped to the food and beverage industry, according to USDA statistics.
Sara Lee Corp. then followed in April 2007 with a petition to the FDA that presses that agency to define "natural" in a way consistent with the USDA. The Sara Lee petition also makes a case for considering sodium lactate "natural." The company's Hillshire Farms brand, for example, uses it as an ingredient.
"Natural preservatives, such as sodium lactate sourced from corn, are derived from plants, animals, and/or microflora and, thus, are 'natural' ingredients," its petition reads in part.
Hormel fired back in late September, filing a lawsuit that seeks a court order in part to force the USDA to rescind past approvals of "natural" labels on meat and poultry products that use sodium lactate as a preservative.
"The 'natural' thing has always been such a morass," said Urvashi Rangan, a Consumers Union senior scientist and policy analyst.