The comments could help the FDA decide whether to define “natural” on labels, and related questions, such as whether only raw agricultural products deserve the term and what ingredients might render a food ineligible.

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WASHINGTON — San Francisco resident Elizabeth Cox bought a bag of All-Natural Mission Tortilla Triangles in August 2012. That simple purchase helped fire up a high-stakes labeling dispute that has subsequently engaged federal judges, regulators and lawmakers alike.

One month after asking members of the public what they think, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been flooded with thousands of suggestions about regulating use of the word “natural” on food labels.

“If manufacturers want to benefit from such labels, force them to be specific about what their food is or isn’t,” Mary Petrofsky, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based nurse practitioner, advised the FDA. “Don’t allow them to just slap an overall label onto it.”

How to comment

To submit comments online, visit regulations.gov and type FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box.

To submit comments by mail, include docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 on each page of your written comments and mail to Division of Dockets Management, HFA-305, Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Petrofsky’s electronically filed suggestion is one of 2,227 comments logged through Thursday afternoon since the FDA asked the public Nov. 12 to weigh in on the labeling question. Thousands more will arrive before the comment period closes Feb. 10.

The comments could help the FDA decide whether to define “natural” on labels, and related questions, such as whether only raw agricultural products deserve the term and what ingredients might render a food ineligible.

With questions about “natural” hot enough to be identified as “trending” on the FDA’s website, the public comments are starting to fall into several familiar channels that frequently recur when the federal government formally solicits public views.

Some offer technical observations. Edward Blonz, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, College of Pharmacy, served the FDA details about complex carbohydrates and synthetic molecules.

Others opine from the perspective of an embattled consumer. “We already know how misleading the food industry is and how little it cares for consumer well-being,” Sacramento, Calif.-area resident Stacey Reardon wrote, adding, “The FDA needs to step in and regulate these food companies that make misleading claims about their products.”

In July, the U.S. House passed a bill that, among other provisions, would require the FDA to go through the rule-making process necessary to define “natural” on labels. Critics fear this GOP-authored bill would pre-empt state labeling laws and could result in genetically engineered foods being dubbed “natural.”

The fight over “natural” labeling is a complicated one that has taken place on many fronts and across multiple federal agencies.

Cox’s purchase of the tortilla chips, for instance, planted the seeds for an attempted class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco. Cox claimed the chips’ manufacturer, Gruma, misled consumers by labeling chips as “all natural,” even though they were made from “genetically modified corn products.”

The lawsuit, and several others like it, prompted three federal judges to ask the FDA for a determination of whether ingredients produced using bioengineering may be labeled “Natural,” “All Natural” or “100 percent Natural.” Last year, the FDA ducked the question.

This year, after receiving competing petitions from disparate groups, the FDA relented and opened the floor for public debate. It’s reportedly the first time since 1993 that the agency has formally addressed the term “natural.”

Cox’s lawsuit was dismissed last year at the request of all parties, court records show.