FDA Crackdown on Misleading Food Labels Praised

Statement of CSPI Legal Affairs Director Bruce Silverglade


The FDA's coordinated enforcement actions today against 16 food manufacturers, including Gerber, Beech-Nut, Gorton's, Sunsweet, Nestlé, Pom, and Diamond, should send a loud and clear signal to industry that time is running out on misleading health-related claims on labels. For far too long, manufacturers have exaggerated the healthfulness of their products, or even implied that their products contain special "functional" ingredients that provide drug-like protection against various diseases. The previous administration tolerated such shenanigans, but I hope that the party is now over.

While today's action is the largest crackdown on deceptive food labeling in more than a decade, the FDA must now turn its individual enforcement actions into binding regulations.

Some companies highlighted in CSPI's recent report found themselves targets of FDA action today, while others apparently escaped scrutiny. The FDA dodged some issues, like not cracking down on false claims that Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice and other foods help strengthen your immune system. And the agency should have banned misleading "0 grams trans fat" claims for foods high in saturated fat, instead of just instructing companies to add a disclosure like "see nutrition panel for saturated fat information." FDA also needs to set standards for claims such as "made with whole wheat" by specifying that the percentage of whole grains appear on the label in conjunction with the claim.

In addition to issuing industry-wide regulations to halt misleading claims, the FDA should update the 20-year-old Nutrition Facts label and improve the readability of ingredient lists. The FDA currently is studying various schemes for providing key pieces of nutrition information prominently on front labels.

The warning letters sent by FDA today are a welcome step. But unless the FDA uses its authority to issue new, industry-wide regulations to prevent such abuses, the agency will forever be playing a game of Whac-A-Mole with companies that use deceptive labeling. 

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