Cracking Down on Claims: FDA Sends Warning to 16 Food Manufacturers, Issues an Open Letter to Industry

March 3, 2010

By Cassandra A. Soltis

Think twice before putting that claim on your food label – or on your website.  Just last month, FDA issued 16 Warning Letters to food manufacturers regarding unauthorized nutrient content and health claims appearing in food labeling.  In addition, some companies were cited for making certain claims that caused their foods to be drugs. 

For example, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc. was told that some of their products were misbranded for including a “0 g trans fat” claim without an accompanying statement directing consumers to see the Nutrition Facts box for fat and saturated fat content.  FDA also informed Diamond Food, Inc. that its shelled walnuts were drugs because of claims that omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts may help lower cholesterol, protect against heart disease and stroke, and even fight depression and other mental illnesses. 

Why the focus on food claims?  In her open letter to industry, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, Commissioner of Food and Drugs, explained that “ready access to reliable information about the calorie and nutrient content of food” is important, particularly in light of the “prevalence of obesity and diet-related disease in the United States.”  She stated that further underscoring the need for accurate food labeling information is the First Lady’s campaign on childhood obesity.  Dr. Hamburg added that the agency intends to work with industry to design a front-of-package (FOP) labeling system that will be meaningful to consumers and help them use and understand the nutrition information provided.   

In that connection, FDA recently released the results of its 2008 U.S. Health and Diet Survey, which included questions about consumers’ use of food labels.  Among the results that caught our attention:

  • 54% of consumers surveyed report that they often make use of the food label when purchasing a product for the first time.  66% of consumers who make at least rare use of the label do so to “see how high or low a food is in things like calories, salt, vitamins or fat.” 

  • 72% of consumers surveyed report awareness of FOP health or nutrition-related symbols or icons.  Of those who are aware of such symbols, 77% report that they often or sometimes use those symbols when deciding to buy a food. 

  • 56% of consumers question the accuracy of claims such as “low fat” or “high fiber.”

This latest evidence of the reliance of consumers on food labeling to make purchasing decisions is likely to stiffen FDA’s resolve to take a harder line on enforcement of labeling requirements.  As we discussed in a prior posting, FOP labeling is likely to garner especially close scrutiny.

Categories: Foods