by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Today’s news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears to be cracking down on food manufacturers’ product claims that cross the line into “medical” is welcome to consumer advocates like the National Consumers League. Last fall, we sent a letter to the FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, complaining that the makers of Cheerios seem to be going too far with their cholesterol-lowering claims about the product. Looking at a big yellow box of Cheerios at the time, we saw that the manufacturer, General Mills, was boldly enticing consumers to “Join the Challenge and Lower Your Cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks.” The back panel repeated the claim, and directed consumers to “Sign Up Today at CheeriosChallenge.com”Our beef with all this was that General Mills’ claims of lowering eaters’ cholesterol levels promises consumers a health benefit, merely by consuming Cheerios® breakfast cereal without accompanying changes in diet or lifestyle, and this type of “magic bullet” health claims aren’t allowed by the laws that the FDA enforces. Cheerios isn’t medicine; it can’t make claims that taking it has a health-improving affect.
So now that FDA has issued a warning letter to General Mills about our shared labeling concerns, we are hopeful that: a. General Mills will clean up its act quickly and stop making misleading claims about its food products and b. this is a sign that those in charge of our very important federal regulatory agencies are interested in cracking down on similarly misleading claims, which are widespread in today’s marketplace.
For more than 100 years, NCL has been concerned about the misleading, deceptive labeling and marketing practices by food and other producers. NCL volunteers staffing a booth at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair demonstrated to fairgoers that canned green beans touted by food processors as a labor-saving home product were adulterated with green dye. Since then, NCL has continued to work tirelessly to ensure that foods, drugs, and other consumer products are safe, healthful, and effective; that their contents are presented clearly and completely; and that advertisements promoting them are fair and honest. We’ve voiced concern over misleading labeling in more recent years, such as those containing sloppily-used terms like “natural” and “fresh,” and we’ll continue to work to ensure the products marketed to consumers are fairly and accurately represented by their manufacturers.
Critics, such as the NBC Today Show’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman, are suggesting that the FDA has better things to do than go after a cereal company on claims like this. But these critics are getting it wrong. Misleading labeling has plagued consumers for many years and comes at great risk to consumers, not only related to their health but to their pocketbooks. Consumers who are misguidedly confident they are getting a daily dose of cholesterol medicine every morning in their cereal may not seek expert medical guidance from their health care practitioners. Cheerios is not an acceptable substitute for quality medical care.
Further, the high-profile nature of what the FDA conveyed in this letter to General Mills, whose Cheerios is the most popular breakfast cereal, gets the federal agency a lot of bang for its buck and sends a message to other food companies that they mustn’t exaggerate claims about a food having the ability to cure diseases when foods cannot do that.