National Consumers League

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NCL Food Issues

Feds cracking down on misleading labels

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Sometimes reading food labels won't reveal the whole truthConsumers are paying more attention to their food labels these days, and the federal government is too! The FDA has recently issued warning letters to more than a dozen food manufacturers for putting labels on their products that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The National Consumers League has sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) applauding the agency for cracking down on manufacturers that display misleading health claims on the packaging of their food products. Last month, the FDA issued warning letters to 17 food manufacturers that the agency identified as marketers of one or more products with labels that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The list of noncompliant food manufacturers (full product list here) includes names that are familiar to many of us: Dreyers Grand Ice Cream, Inc.; Gorton’s, Inc.; Schwan’s Consumer Brands; Spectrum Organic Products, Inc.; Beechnut; PBM Products; Nestle; Nestle Nutrition; Redco Foods; Sunsweet Growers; Fleminger Inc.; POM Wonderful; Ken’s Foods, Inc.; Pompeian, Inc.; Diamond Food, Inc.; First Juice, Inc.; Want Want Foods; and Nature’s Path Foods, Inc.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg also wrote an open letter to the food industry, reiterating the agency’s dedication to ensuring the accuracy and usefulness of food labels, explaining that warning letters have been issued, and urging all manufacturers to check their labels for FDA compliance.

NCL has a long history of calling for the agency to take action against products bearing labels that misrepresent food items and mislead consumers in their purchasing decisions. In the past, the League has drawn attention to violations such as drug-like claims about the cereal’s ability to lower cholesterol on the Cheerios box; misuse of the term “fresh,” particularly with respect to tomato products; and “imposter” items such as the Ocean Spray’s “Choice” product, which is being marketed as a sweetened dried cranberry product but actually contains more sugar than fruit and cranberry skins in place of whole berries. As the FDA has acknowledged, watchdogs such as NCL play a crucial role in drawing the agency’s attention to products that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, thereby enabling the federal government agency to take action.

A number of the 22 products that the FDA identified as problematic make the kinds of drug-like claims that NCL identified on the Cheerios box. Several other products bear misleading claims about fat content, advertising that the item has no trans fat without noting that it does contain significant levels of other kinds of fat, including saturated. Still other products raised red flags at the agency because of unauthorized health claims on items intended to be consumed by children under the age of two. (The nutritional needs of young children are very different from those of adults, and the FDA allows some claims on foods targeted at older consumers but not on products meant for anyone under the age of two. Appropriate dietary levels of many nutrients have not even been established for young kids, so this is particularly complicated area.)

Truth in advertising on food packaging is more important than ever before, as more of us are paying attention to food labels these days. A recent FDA survey found that, in 2008, 54 percent of Americans reported that they “often” read the food labels the first time they purchase a given product, up from 44 percent in 2002. While more individuals read food labels than they used to, they do not necessarily trust them. In fact, more Americans are dubious than not: the FDA survey found that only 41 percent of Americans trust the accuracy of all or most nutrient claims, such as “high fiber” or “low fat,” while 56 percent feel that only some – or none – are credible.

The National Consumers League will continue to call the FDA’s attention to health claims that mislead consumers or violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. If you come across items in your grocery store with claims that you believe to be untruthful, please contact NCL’s Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow Courtney Brein ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) and do your part to make the marketplace more transparent for all consumers.