Jonathan’s Sprouts Inc. is not the first food company to get into trouble for its website.  The way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sees it, company websites are an extension of a brand or product’s label and making unsupported claims there is verboten.

Based in Rochester, MA, the 35-year-old Jonathan’s Sprouts supplies retailers and restaurants in the Northeast.  Founded by Bob and Barbara Sanderson and Jim Bunker, Bob’s cousin, in an old New England barn in Massachusetts, Jonathan’s Sprouts today ships 24 tons of 20 different products a week.

The organic operation makes the claim that its sprouts are the “best tasting safest sprouts you can buy.” That appears to be one of the few statements on its website that FDA does not have a problem with.

In a March 24 warning letter to Jonathan’s Sprouts, FDA charges that the company is making unauthorized health and nutrient claims, as well as claims that make sprouts tantamount to an unapproved drug.

Most of the claims read like a late-night television infomercial.  FDA, in its warning letter, goes back and forth between the claims on Jonathan’s brochures and on its website.  

Sprouts are depicted as “The Miracle Food” with the power to “protect us from the growth of cancer cells” and as “a potent anti-tumor agent.”  Alfalfa sprouts are especially good for combating pancreatic, colon and leukemia cancers, the company asserts.

FDA says those “therapeutic claims on your website establish that the products are drugs because they are intended for the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease.”

Alfalfa sprouts are claimed to be ‘high in cholesterol lowing agents” and good for controlling “fibrocystic breast tumors.”  Broccoli “may fight cancer,” prevent tumor growth and kill stomach bacteria that may lead to cancer.

FDA said Jonathan’s products “are not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above reference uses.”   Under the law, a product cannot be said to have drug-like properties without a company first seeking and winning FDA approval as a “new drug.”

“In addition, your products are offered for conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners; hence adequate directions cannot be written so a layman can use them safely for their intended uses,” the warning letter says.

FDA said Jonathan’s products are “misbranded.”

Jonathan’s also makes unauthorized health claims, the agency said. The sprout farm says that phytoestrogens, a substance found in alfalfa, clover and mung bean sprouts, reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Among the nutrient content claims made by Jonathan’s that FDA takes exception to are ones that state  “high in antioxidants” and “sprouts also contain an abundance of highly active antioxidants.”   The agency says that in making those claims Jonathan’s failed to name the nutrients involved.

In the same manner, FDA goes on to say that claiming products are “rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals is misleading, because sprouts are, in fact, low in some vitamins (such as A and C).

Jonathan’s says its sprouts are “sodium free.”  Sprouts are low in sodium, FDA counters, but not low enough to make the “sodium free” claims.

For its part, Jonathan’s has promised to take corrective actions.  FDA said it would evaluate those during its next inspection.  It still asked the sprout farm to respond to the warning letter within 15 working days.