Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released 17 warning letters to food manufacturers, accusing the companies of violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act with false product labeling.  

The action follows an October 2009 “dear industry letter” from FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg advising food companies to provide consumers with more accurate information on food packages. The immediate focus of the FDA’s action is on “front-of-pack” labels, or labels designed to grab consumers’ attention by making claims of health or nutrition on the front of the food packages.

In conjunction with the FDA’s warnings, Mrs. Hamburg published an open letter to the industry on March 3 questioning current labeling practices. Many label claims may not help consumers distinguish healthy food choices from less healthy ones, she said, and some claims are outright false or misleading.

As a result, the FDA sent warning letters to 17 food manufacturers, following through on its promise to crack down on front-of-pack labeling. This marks the first time the agency has done so under President Barack Obama.

In her March 3 letter, released in conjunction with the FDA’s announcement, Mrs. Hamburg pledged cooperation with food manufacturers to improve labeling.

“I am confident that our past cooperative efforts on nutrition information and claims in food labeling will continue as we jointly develop a practical, science-based front-of-pack regime that we can all use to help consumers choose healthier foods and healthier diets,” Mrs. Hamburg wrote in the letter.    

Recipients of the warning letter included Nestle, Dreyer’s Ice Cream, POM pomegranate juice, and Gorton’s, the nation’s largest US producer of frozen seafood. The violations ranged from unauthorized health claims to masking contents like unhealthy fats. According to the Financial Times, companies have 15 days to respond, either by challenging the FDA’s findings or informing the FDA of the steps they will take to remedy their labeling. 

Most companies were quick to apologize. In a statement on its corporate website, Diamond Foods, cited for making claims that its shelled walnuts warded off maladies such as arthritis, cancer and heart disease, said: “We expect to be able to make any c

hanges required to our packaging and website expeditiously and with minimal expense.”
Nestle, too, responded quickly, saying that it believed its labels complied with regulations but that it would cooperate with the FDA.

POM pomegranate juice, however, defended its labeling practices arduously on its website: “All statements made in connection with POM products are true, and are supported by an unprecedented body of scientific research.” POM’s juice bottle labels claim the product can prevent or cure diseases like hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and erectile dysfunction.

The more aggressive enforcement reverses a relatively permissive stance on the content of food labels that had taken hold over the last 15 years, Bruce A. Silverglade, director of legal affairs of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the New York Times.

“The FDA is not merely firing a shot across the bow; it is declaring war on misleading food labeling,” he said.

The high-profile warnings continue a pattern of more rigorous regulatory action by the Obama administration. In line with this trend, Mrs. Hamburg said recently the FDA will issue a new draft guidance relating to front-of-pack calorie and nutrient labeling.

“The FDA should provide as clear and consistent guidance as possible about food labeling claims and nutrition information in general, and specifically about how growing front-of-pack calorie and nutrient information can best help consumers construct healthy diets.”