After years of virtual silence about the labeling tricks food companies play on consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came out with a loud and clear statement that it will start cracking down on misleading, or flat out wrong, labels.
FDA officials sent warning letters to 17 food manufacturers, telling them that 22 different products are in violation of federal law. On top of that, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, published an open letter to the food industry highlighting the importance of being honest with consumers.
"Today, ready access to reliable information about the calorie and nutrient content of food is even more important, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the United States," Hamburg wrote. "The use of front-of-pack nutrition symbols and other claims has grown tremendously in recent years, and it is clear to me as a working mother that such information can be helpful to busy shoppers who are often pressed for time in making their food selections."
Front-of-pack refers to the part of the label most likely to be seen by shoppers and it is the area most abused by companies.
WalletPop has highlighted problems with labeling -- including misleading labels and labels that are just plain wrong.
Warning letters to food companies were sent to the makers of Dibs ice cream bites, Ken's salad dressings, Gorton's fish, both Gerber and Beech-Nut baby foods, Sunsweet dried fruit, Diamond shelled walnuts, Juicy Juice and Mrs. Smith's frozen pies. Most of the letters warn the companies about making claims that don't follow federal laws. Among them using the word "healthy" and noting the product has no trans fats when it's otherwise loaded with fat.
Perhaps the product that took the biggest lumps was Nestle's Juicy Juice brand drinks, which claim to be 100% juice on the front of the labels but actually lists: "flavored juice blend from concentrate with other natural flavors & added ingredients" in the tiny ingredient portion on the back. And Salada, the makers of green tea, were told to stop claiming in marketing materials that green tea has been scientifically shown to inhibit cancer. Baby food makers were scolded for making a series of claims that are forbidden from any products intended for children under the age of 2. All of the letters can be found here.
The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest has been championing the fight to both push the FDA to do more and to get laws changed to ensure consumers get the information they need without having to sift through meaningless claims. Bruce Silverglade, the group's head of legal affairs, hailed the FDA's action as a "once in a generation" action.
"People are cheated. They are led to believe a food is healthier than it is," CPSI executive director Michael Jacobson said. "Mislabeling also cheats the honest companies." When competitors use misleading food labels to lure customers it puts pressure on other companies to do the same, he said.
CSPI officials said they hope this is just the opening salvo in the war against misleading labels.
"The warning letters sent by FDA today are a welcome step," Silverglade said later in a written statement. "But unless the FDA uses its authority to issue new, industry-wide regulations to prevent such abuses, the agency will forever be playing a game of Whac-A-Mole with companies that use deceptive labeling."
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