Crackdown on Fraudulent Food Labels Urged
CSPI Exposes Some of the Most Misleading Ingredient Claims
Health-conscious consumers are being misled by many food labels that exaggerate the presence of healthful ingredients, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The nutrition and food-safety watchdog group says that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't have the resources or the will to stop deceptive labeling and typically does nothing even when flagrantly fraudulent labels are brought to its attention. Today CSPI, a state attorney general, and a ranking appropriator in Congress are all saying that needs to change.
For years, CSPI has filed complaints with the FDA about egregiously mislabeled foods -- for example, "blueberry" waffles with no blueberries or "strawberry" yogurt for kids with no strawberries. The FDA's inaction on such products has been taken by food manufacturers as a signal to make even more deceptive claims, said CSPI.
"Food manufacturers are shamelessly tricking consumers who are trying to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," said CSPI director of legal affairs Bruce Silverglade. "Too many processed foods contain only token amounts of the healthful ingredients highlighted on labels and are typically loaded with fats, refined sugars, refined flour, and salt, in various combinations."
At a news conference in Washington with Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Silverglade said that the FDA should immediately stop misleading food labels, including those for:
* Gerber Graduates for Toddlers Fruit Juice Snacks -- the package is decorated with pictures of oranges, cherries, and strawberries, but the leading ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. "You can guess why Gerber doesn't call these things Corn Syrup Snacks-no parent would buy them," says Silverglade. "This is candy, not fruit juice."
* Betty Crocker Super Moist Carrot Cake Mix -- the box depicts what appear to be pieces of carrot, but the only carrot ingredient is "carrot powder," which is the 19th ingredient listed, behind artificial color, salt, and dicalcium phosphate.
* Smucker's Simply 100% Fruit -- the strawberry version of this "100% fruit" spread contains 30 percent strawberries; the blueberry version contains only 43 percent blueberries. Both have more fruit syrup than fruit-syrup that comes not from berries but from less-expensive apple, pineapple, or pear juice concentrate.
* Kellogg's Eggo Nutri-Grain Pancakes -- the label boasts that these pancakes are "Made with Whole Wheat and Whole Grain," but the pancakes are made primarily with white flour and have more high-fructose corn syrup than whole wheat or other whole grain. CSPI says that foods labeled "whole grain" should have whole grain flour as their flour constituent, as is the requirement for whole wheat bread.
* General Mills' Yoplait Light Fat Free Yogurt -- the label claims to burn more fat and help dieters lose weight if they consume three servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt daily. However, the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has called the evidence on dairy products and weight loss inconclusive.
* Quaker Oats Pasta Roni -- the label boasts White Cheddar & Broccoli in large letters and displays a picture of pasta with pieces of broccoli. Although broccoli appears on the fourth line of a 14-line ingredient list, there are only small specks of broccoli in the actual package.
"Budget cuts have decimated the number of FDA regulators working on food labeling, while their responsibilities for monitoring the way food is packaged and marketed have increased substantially," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee that sets the FDA budget. "We must do everything we can to encourage healthy eating and reduce obesity in this country by restoring integrity to the FDA and empowering people to make informed decisions about the foods they are eating. The FDA must investigate labeling violations, and take action to ensure consumers have accurate nutrition information."
In a letter to acting FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, CSPI said that FDA's Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements (ONPLDS), does not have any plan to identify and remedy misleading labeling. Field inspectors only review labels during their inspections of manufacturers' facilities, during which label violations are not a central focus and which occur on average only once every five years. The few warnings issued by the agency typically involve only obvious violations, such as the complete omission of a Nutrition Facts panel or the inclusion of an overt drug-like claim.
Of 9,000 employees, the FDA has the equivalent of only four full-time headquarters staff enforcing food-labeling laws-a staffing level that CSPI says has proven to be completely incapable of ensuring honest labels on the $500 billion worth of FDA-regulated foods. Nevertheless, even with those few staffers, the agency could still be much more aggressive in policing misleading labels.
Although the FDA has done little to stop misleading food labels, private lawyers and at least one state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have brought lawsuits to crack down on fraudulent food labels. Blumenthal's office has reached several settlement agreements with food companies, including South Beach Beverage Company (SoBe), owned by PepsiCo, Inc., which agreed to stop making unproven health claims for its products and paid the state $219,000 in penalties and legal costs.
"Mislabeling food as healthy is hazardous to health," Blumenthal said. "The mislabeling mentality in the food industry is completely out of control, taking consumers for fools. An understaffed, unmotivated FDA is unacceptable. Informed and safe diet decisions require the truth. Our message to the FDA and the food industry: Do your job; give consumers the real facts, not feckless spin."
CSPI and private consumer-action lawyers have persuaded such major companies as Tropicana and Quaker Foods, both units of PepsiCo, and Pinnacle Foods, the maker of Aunt Jemima Frozen Blueberry Waffles, to improve their labeling practices. Because of government inaction, CSPI is increasingly turning to discussions with companies and to the courts to stop misleading labeling.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).