Canned tomato products not so ‘fresh’ after all – National Consumers League

The National Consumers League has again called on the Food and Drug Administration to renew its efforts to prevent consumers from being misled by deceptive labeling of processed fruit and vegetable products – this time in the canned tomato products industry.

Nineteen years ago, NCL persuaded the FDA to take a firm stand on prohibiting the use of the term “fresh” on any fruit or vegetable product that is reconstituted or remanufactured from concentrate. At that time, NCL asked that the use of the term “made from concentrate” or “reconstituted” be placed prominently on the front label of these products. FDA issued policy guidance designed to prevent the continued labeling misrepresentation of these products and took action against Ragu “Fresh Italian” Pasta Sauce and Citrus Hill “Fresh Choice” Orange Juice.

Since that time, according to Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL, “the marketplace has become littered once again with false and misleading labels for products, for example, tomato products that are reconstituted from industrial tomato concentrate, pretending to be ‘made from fresh tomatoes,’ ‘packed in season,’ or ‘packed from vine ripened tomatoes’.”

In a 2009 letter to FDA, NCL asked that it issue a new guidance to industry setting forth the FDA’s enforcement policy regarding appropriate use of labeling claims that express or imply that a tomato product was packed or made from fresh tomatoes, and to enforce that policy rigorously. NCL also asked that all fruit and vegetable products reconstituted or remanufactured from concentrate be required to disclose this prominently on the label’s front panel. Greenberg stated, “Such a declaration would provide information that consumers need and want to make informed purchase decisions and would close out the clever word play.”

In a new letter to the FDA this April, NCL urged the agency to warn the food industry that claims implying that products are made from fresh ingredients when they are actually made from concentrate are deceptive under federal law. NCL also reiterated its 2009 request that FDA require that all fruit and vegetable products remanufactured from concentrate state “From Concentrate” on the fronts of food packages.

Since NCL’s previous complaint to the FDA, the largest producer of tomato sauces, ConAgra Foods, has taken some corrective steps. The company’s Hunt’s brand removed the claim “Packed full of premium vine-ripened tomatoes” from its tomato sauce label, and the words “packed in season” were removed from the company’s Angela Mia Pizza Sauce label. Other misleading claims, however, remain. NCL has written ConAgra saying the company has “taken a step in the right direction” and urged further corrective actions.

Advocates are concerned that consumers are paying premium prices for products that imply they are made from fresh ingredients, but are really remanufactured from concentrate.

Products that NCL believes are still deceptively labeled include:

• Del Monte Seafood Cocktail Sauce that claims “Made from California Vine-ripened Tomatoes” on the front of the package when, in fact, it is made from concentrate (tomato paste and added water). An image of a vine-ripened tomato appears directly below the claim.

• Classico Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce that states on the label “In colorful Naples, pasta sauces are pure and simple, with ripe, red tomatoes…” when the product is actually made from concentrate. The claim has been deleted from new “value size” 44 oz jars of the sauce, but still appears on the label of the smaller, 24-oz. product.

• Contadina Pizza Sauce and Contadina Puree that state “Contadina picks the Freshest Tomatoes,” and “Our vine-ripened Roma style tomatoes are grown to a rich red color before picking…” (a picture on the front label depicts vine-ripened tomatoes and a tomato field and the term “ROMA STYLE TOMATOES” appears on the front of the package below the Contadina brand name). The products, in fact, are made from concentrate.

Other products with misleading labels identified by NCL are Francesco Rinaldi Original Traditional Pasta Sauce and Gia Russa Tomato Puree.

“Companies making misleading claims should note that ConAgra, the industry leader, has changed some of its labels to ensure that their claims are honest and fair. We hope this sends a signal to other companies that taking corrective action is the smart thing to do given recent increases in regulatory scrutiny by federal and state authorities,” said Greenberg.