With Faulty Food Labeling, Who's Minding the Store?

FRIDAY March 19, 2010 -- Reports in recent months of inaccurate, misleading ingredient lists or calorie-counts on store-bought foods are leading many to wonder if food-product labeling can be trusted, and who -- if anyone -- is checking that it's true.

Consider the following:

  • A report published in January involving 29 reduced-calorie restaurant and packaged foods found that many products had an average 18 percent more calories than was stated on labels or menus;
  • DNA studies done late last year by two New York City high school students found that one out of six products in their own kitchens had labeling that was flat-out wrong. This included cheese claiming to be made from sheep's milk that was actually plain old cow's milk and caviar that was Mississippi paddlefish instead of sturgeon, as advertised;
  • According to a study released in 2009, about 2 percent of food products without a "may contain" warning actually do contain allergens. Even a trace of some allergens -- peanuts, for example -- could be lethal to some people.

And on March 3, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it had alerted 17 food manufacturers that the labeling on 22 of their products violated federal statutes. The problems included "unauthorized health claims, unauthorized nutrient content claims, and the unauthorized use of terms such as 'healthy.'" The companies were given 15 days to outline how they would correct the violations.

All of this lends urgency to a recent FDA "three-pronged initiative" for better oversight of food labeling. That effort includes moving food-ingredient information to the front of the package -- instead of burying it on the back -- and amending "serving size" amounts to reflect real-world eating practices, said agency spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Institute of Medicine, at the urging of the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is reviewing so-called "front of package" messages -- the symbols, logos and icons that give consumers nutritional information. The final report, to be used as a basis for federal regulations, should be out later this year.

In the meantime, can consumers trust what they read?

One representative of the nation's food makers stressed that an accusation of misleading label information doesn't imply guilt.

"Before any conclusions can be reached on any reports of purported labeling non-compliance, it would be necessary to check that the entity bringing those allegations was following the regulated procedures for sampling and testing, and the labeling conformed with the compliance parameters and rounding rules spelled out in regulations," said Regina Hildwine, senior director of science policy, labeling and standards for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "That said, it is up to each individual food manufacturer to make sure that their food labels are in compliance with the regulations. Overall, food manufacturers do an outstanding job of complying with all food labeling regulations."

Hildwine added that GMA is "working with FDA and USDA to develop new food label rules that are based on sound science and that are effective with busy parents."

On the other side of the argument, the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently sent a scathing report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration itemizing what it said were false food-label claims and demanding action.

"The FDA has not systematically tested the accuracy of the Nutrition Facts panel found on practically all products in grocery stores since 1996. There have been indications that some companies are cheating and there have been a number of private lawsuits challenging the veracity of calorie and fat disclosures on the nutrition fact panel," said CSPI legal advisor Bruce Silverglade. "There are a number of concerns the companies are not giving us the facts because apparently the federal cop on the beat is not checking up."

The FDA's DeLancey said that while her agency had not yet reviewed the CSPI report, it "is in the process of reviewing a number of food labels that may be false or misleading. We recently notified General Mills and Nestle of their labeling violations, and we will take additional actions against other companies as appropriate, in the near future."

Others also worry the FDA is not doing its job, but believe the fault does not lie entirely with the agency.

"The FDA is supposed to keep assuring accurate nutritional labeling ... but that takes a lot of time and a lot of staffing," noted Susan Kraus, a registered dietitian with Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. "I don't think it's that they're blatantly not doing their job."

"It's not just the FDA," added Dr. Robert H. Sprinkle, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There are a lot of people involved here, a lot of parts of government and a lot of activities that aren't really under government purview, although people might assume they are, such as supplements."

The FDA could be likened to Lucille Ball in the famous "chocolate factory" episode of I Love Lucy -- trying, but failing, to keep up with products speeding down the conveyor belt. "I don't think [the FDA] is able to keep track or keep up with the number of new products out there," Kraus said.

"We all eat. How many hundreds of thousands of food products are sold every day?" added Sprinkle. "They're sold many times to hundreds of millions of people. They're processed in different plants. They might have origins in different countries. Differences in composition may actually displace some components or affect what happens in cooking. The idea that you could continually keep up with that and continually revise the labels so you hit it on the nose, it's not going to happen."

So, are willful lies being told on packaging? In most cases, probably not, experts say, but consumers should not take labels as gospel.

"The FDA label tells you what went in the product but when you bite into it, in some cases the food ingredients may have changed -- as a result of temperatures during the storage period or conditions during distribution of the product -- and are therefore no longer true to the label," explained Kantha Shelke, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists.

"Processes are changing and labeling technology hasn't kept up, and it's in the interest of some that it stay that way," Shelke said. "It's sort of like the police department. Do you take care of the big murderers or all the petty thieves? The FDA is in a similar position with a whole bunch of things in front of them."

Then there's the convenience factor. Americans want something that can stay on the shelf for six months, if need be, Shelke said, and adding more preservatives often means upping the calorie count. Salt is a big preservative, but too much doesn't taste that good, so manufacturers may add sugar or fat to compensate, he said.

Add to that the FDA's own built-in "fudge factor."

"The FDA allows up to 20 percent variance [on nutritive counts]," said Dr. Marina Kurian, medical director for the program for surgical weight loss at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. "It's within the law." According to Kurian, this "wiggle room" means the actual calorie count rarely goes down; it usually goes up.

But even though labels may be confusing, some of the responsibility rests with consumers, she said.

"I think it's important for people to realize that they're not necessarily always getting what they think they're getting," Kurian said. "You can't just glance at the label. You have to really read it."

On the other hand, savvy consumers can only do so much, Sprinkle said.

Labels are "not clear-cut, that's true, but that's not an excuse," he said. "Greedy, malicious people could take advantage of this. If it's not clear-cut, then there are great fortunes to be made on the lack of clarity. Why does it not make sense? We've made progress, but we could make more if brighter lights were shone more on a process that may end up compromising public health."

More information

There's more on how to read and understand food labels at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Posted: March 2010


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