On March 3, 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release and their Commissioner Margaret Hamburg issued an open letter to the food industry concerning correct labeling of food products. These came after an October 2009 statement by Commissioner Hamburg advising companies to review their labeling to ensure compliance with FDA regulations.
In the press release, the FDA notified 17 food manufacturers that the labeling for 22 of their food products violates the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The violations cited include unauthorized health claims, unauthorized nutrient content claims and the unauthorized use of terms such as "healthy," and others that have strict, regulatory definitions. The companies that received the warning letters have 15 business days to inform the FDA of the steps they will take to correct their labeling.
In the open letter, Commissioner Hamburg acknowledged that citizens use the nutrition information on food packages to make their food decisions, and that such information is even more important today, with the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the United States. Commissioner Hamburg made it clear that the scientific accuracy and usefulness of food labeling is a priority and information provided on the principal display panel of food packages, commonly referred to as "front-of-pack" labeling, will be their latest focus. The agency plans to work with food manufacturers, retailers and others in the design process to devise a front-of-pack labeling system that consumers can understand and use. The FDA will also issue new draft guidance relating to front-of-pack calorie and nutrient labeling, as well as draft guidance that would recommend nutritional criteria for foods that make "dietary guidance" statements (such as "Eat 2 cups of fruit a day for good health") in their labeling.
Another area of concern is the number and variety of label claims that may not help consumers distinguish healthy food choices from less healthy ones that may be false or misleading. As mentioned above, the FDA has issued warning letters to a number of manufacturers that their labels are in violation of the law and subject to legal proceedings to remove misbranded products from the marketplace. The warning letters cover a range of concerns about how false and misleading labels can jeopardize the consumers' ability to make informed and healthy food choices. Some examples of the concerns follow:
- Nutrient content claims the FDA has authorized for use on foods for adults are not permitted on foods for children under two.
- Claims that a product is free of trans fat, which implies that the product is a better choice than products without the claim. This can be misleading when a product is high in saturated fat, and especially when the claim is not accompanied by the required statement referring consumers to the more complete information on the Nutrition Facts panel.
- Products that claim to treat or mitigate disease are considered to be drugs and must meet the regulatory requirements for drugs.
- Misleading "healthy" claims continue to appear on foods that do not meet the long and well-established definition for use of that term.
- Juice products that mislead consumers into believing they consist entirely of a single juice are still on the market. Juice blends are often inaccurately labeled as single-juice products.
It is clear that the FDA is working to improve consumers' ability to make nutritious choices by monitoring the marketplace and providing guidance about food labeling and its expectations. Any food manufacturer and retailer should continue to monitor the FDA's actions, guidance and recommendations in this area.