(USA Today) SAN FRANCISCO -- Two-thirds of Americans think the world "natural" on the label of a packaged or processed food means it contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically engineered organisms, a survey released this week by the magazine Consumer Reports found.
When consumers see the word on meat or poultry, 70% think it means no growth hormones were used in the animals feed and 60% think the animals got no antibiotics or other drugs in their feed.
The problem is, consumers are wrong.
Under federal labeling rules, the word natural means absolutely nothing.
"Our findings show consumers expect much more from 'natural' food labels and that there is a strong consumer mandate for better food production practices in general and food label standards that meet a higher bar," said Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center in Yonkers, N.Y.
When asked what they thought the word natural should mean on a label, about 85% of consumers said it should mean no pesticides were used to grow it and that it contained no artificial ingredients or genetically modified ingredients.
That's very different from current federal rules.
Both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow food producers to use the word "natural" on labels as long as nothing artificial or synthetic has been added "that would not normally be expected to be in the food" under an informal policy FDA put into place in 1993.
When the FDA asked for comments on whether it should officially define the term, "one company argued that prohibition of 'natural' would be an unconstitutional restrict on free speech," the agency said in a Federal Register notice on Jan. 6, 1993.
In the end, the agency decided not to define the term "natural" or to prohibit its use.
"Defining 'natural;' represents additional challenges when food has been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. Additionally, there are differing perspectives on how specific such a label should be," the agency said in an email to USA TODAY.
That hasn't stopped various groups from trying to get FDA to do so. It tends to come up in high profile food fights such as the ones surrounding high-fructose corn syrup and genetically modified ingredients.
In 2006, the Sugar Association petitioned the FDA to define "natural," hoping to gain advantage over high-fructose corn syrup, which it didn't think should use the term.
In 2010, several district court judges stayed cases by consumers claiming companies were misleading them by using the term "natural" on beverages that contained high fructose corn syrup.
In New Jersey, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Lois Goodman asked for FDA guidance "on whether [high fructose corn syrup] is indeed a natural ingredient or not."
In an email, the agency said it "addresses use of the term "natural" by holding food companies responsible for ensuring that their labeling is truthful and not misleading, and has issued warning letters to companies that fail to uphold this standard."
In 2011, the agency told Alexia Foods of Long Island City, N.Y., that its roasted red Potatoes & baby portabella mushrooms product was misbranded because the label said "All Natural" when it contained disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, a synthetic chemical preservative.
In 2013, the FDA told Key Ingredient Market that it could not use the word "natural" to describe an artificial crab meat product containing artificial flavors, preservatives and dough conditioners.
That same year, the FDA told Waterwheel Premium Foods that its crackers couldn't be labeled "all-natural" because they contained artificial rye flavor.
The most recent declaration came on Jan. 6, when FDA declined to answer several courts that had asked the agency to determine whether foods containing ingredients made from genetically engineered corn could legally be labeled "natural."
The foods included Kix cereal, Campbell's vegetable soup and Gruma tortillas.
In a letter to the judges in those cases, FDA said it declined "to make a determination at this time regarding whether and under what circumstances food products containing ingredients produced using genetically engineered ingredients may or may not be labeled 'natural.
It's enough of an issue for food companies that the Grocery Manufacturers of America has come out in support of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. Introduced in the House last April, the bill calls for FDA to define the term "natural" for use on food and beverage products.
GMA and other food producers aren't telling FDA how to define natural, they just want to agency to do so because "it is important for FDA to provide both companies and consumers with a consistent definition of natural and a legal framework for its use," the trade group said in an email.
Others want to do away with 'natural' entirely. Consumer Reports has launched acampaign to get the FDA and USDA to ban the word on food labels.
"It is misleading, confusing, and deceptive," said Rangan. We truly don't believe there is a way to define it that will meet all of consumers' expectations."
PHOTOS: Cheerleaders braving the elements!