About one out of every four labels tested is inaccurate, WalletPop.com found, based on the findings of lab tests, interviews with food testing experts and government reports. The most likely ones to flunk are on products dedicated to people with specific dietary concerns -- such as those targeting people on low carbohydrate, low sodium or low sugar diets.
"People depend on food labels to help them make choices. People expect those labels to be accurate," said Lisa Lillien, founder of Hungry-Girl.com, which sends a daily e-mail newsletter to more than 820,000 diet conscious followers. "Not having strict laws, and/or not having whatever laws are in place enforced can be a very dangerous thing."
Food companies largely self-police, with almost no government oversight, even though the labels themselves are required by a federal law that makes it illegal to use inaccurate or misleading information on a label.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office noted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's enforcement was minimal and disorganized and recommended greater vigilance.
Only one state, Florida, actively tests food labels for accuracy -- and on a much smaller scale than in years past.
In testing in the past couple of years, Florida found:
- Sugar in sugar free coconut pies sold at Walmart.
- Sugar in sugar free syrup made by Walden Farms.
- More sodium than claimed in Orville Redenbacher Popcorn Cakes.
- Sugar in sugar free Hill & Valley Apple Walnut Muffins.
- Fat exceeding the labels claim in Publix whole wheat hamburger buns.
- More sugar than the labels claim in Sunsweet prune juice.
These types of errors affect people who are trying to lose weight and rely on the labels to get accurate information and also for those who have health issues such as diabetes who need to know the real sugar content of a product.
Most of the companies tend to bring the products into compliance after getting a warning (few are penalized), but it isn't clear how many products were sold in the interim and over what period of time with the erroneous information. And despite the GAO recommendations, the federal government shows no signs of interest in expanding product testing beyond the tiny amount currently performed.
"As we are sure you understand, FDA has limited resources to sample every product or even every new product marketed in the United States to determine the accuracy of the nutrition labeling," FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan told WalletPop.
The GAO noted the FDA hasn't kept up with the growth in the number of companies bringing food products to market. The report did not suggest testing every product brought to market, but rather that more products from a wider range of sources were both checked and then followed-up on.
"FDA has little assurance that companies comply with food labeling laws and regulations for, among other things, preventing false or misleading labeling," the report to Congress concluded.
And, the GAO pointed out, the FDA doesn't know exactly how many inspections have been done, but it is clear they have declined. And, using the FDA's own data, the GAO found that 24% of tested samples were not accurate. When a company was found to have an erroneous label, the GAO found that the company might have received a warning letter, but that little was documented as to what happened thereafter.
"If something goes unmonitored long enough, problems are going to pop up," said Mark French, who oversees food testing at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services labs -- the leading public food testing operation in the nation.
It isn't easy for food companies to comply with the laws, French said. The expense of testing makes accurate labeling tilt in favor of larger companies. Many smaller companies rely on simply adding together the nutritional values of the ingredients and hoping it accurately represents the final product.
"It costs a lot of money to make and sell food correctly," he said.
He also said bigger companies tend to react much more quickly to inaccuracies detected by his lab. Walmart, for instance, which had a sugar free pie test positive for sugar, is quick to address problems because it contracts with third party producers to manufacture its products. The retailer tells the producer to fix the problem, French said, and it tends to get fixed. If it doesn't, he said, they will find someone else to make the product.
Smaller companies, such as niche bakeries that produce sugar free cookies, for example, tend to run into more problems.
"I've found that so many of the smaller 'mom and pop' companies that are putting out so-called 'diet' food with lower calorie and fat counts are not labeling their foods accurately," said Lillien of Hungry-Girl.com. "I've seen it time and time again. I'll find a product with nutritional info that seems too good to be true, then I'll take it to a lab to be tested only to have my suspicions confirmed."
Something more should be done, she said.
"We're always hearing about this food or that food having more calories and/or fat than it is supposed to and then the food companies who have had mislabeled foods aren't penalized in any real way," Lillien said. "It would be great if they could be held accountable so they would have more of an incentive to provide the public with accurate information. The "slap on the wrist" that many of these companies get -- especially the smaller companies -- isn't enough."