Food manufacturers’ claims ‘ripe’ with deception – National Consumers League

When you reach for a bottle of spaghetti or pizza sauce at your local supermarket, would you rather the product be made from fresh, California vine-ripened tomatoes or reconstituted from industrial tomato concentrate? Food manufacturers like Del Monte and Contadina are guessing you prefer fresh ingredients in your food, and are going so far as to place false, misleading labeling on some of their products to entice consumers to buy them.

Unscrupulous food manufactures slapping inaccurate statements on their products to justify premium prices is nothing new. In the tomato sauce industry, concentrated tomato paste is often mixed with water to produce a common, accepted, and budget-friendly tomato sauce, and the ingredients list on such a product should indicate a concentrate was involved. If a product made from concentrate, however, includes claims such as “packed full of premium vine-ripened tomatoes,” “select 100% California tomatoes” and “packed in season,” these are deceptive practices under federal food labeling law.

NCL has been keeping an eye on this “from concentrate” and other food labeling issue for decades. In 2009 NCL wrote to the FDA asking the federal watchdog to crack down on misleading claims on tomato sauces. Products that NCL points to as deceptively labeled today 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” jars of the sauce, but still appears on the label of the regular size 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…”

Back in 2009 NCL wrote to FDA to urge 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 requested that FDA require that all fruit and vegetable products remanufactured from concentrate state “From Concentrate” on the fronts of food packages.

NCL is happy to report that since issuing the FDA complaint, 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 remain and work still needs to be done, but ConAgra has taken strides in the right direction.

In tough economic times, when consumers are still carefully monitoring their budgets and fuel and food prices continue to rise, having accurate pricing and product information is more important than ever; there is simply no room for duping consumers with false product information.