Taking a No-Tolerance Approach to Deceptive Food Labeling

Sep 14, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown

All we want when we look at a food label is to know what's in the stuff we're considering putting in our bodies. Because a lot of companies know they'll move more product if they fudge the facts, only strong disincentives to their doing so will stop them.

Just gimme some truth —John Lennon

The Russian government recently approved imposing relatively heavy fines on—and even confiscation of products by—food producers who do not properly label the GMO contents of foodstuffs.

However dubious the judgment of the Russian government has been lately in foreign affairs, taking a hard line against food producers who obfuscate the truth about what they want to put inside the bodies of the citizenry is sound domestic policy.

The reason is simple: people should be helped, not hindered, in making educated decisions about what they eat.

Of course, someone needs to tell that to big corporations. Take Coca-Cola, for example, owners of Minute Maid, whose Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices consists of a mere 0.3% pomegranate juice. While technically the label does not lie—the product is 100% juice, as advertised—consumers couldn't be blamed for thinking that pomegranate juice is one of the main ingredients, could they?

It was in the name of such thinking that led POM Wonderful, makers of a pomegranate juice product that actually is made mostly (or totally, as it happens here) of pomegranate juice, to sue Coca-Cola on the grounds that marketing the Minute Maid product as "Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices" is false advertising.

Coca-Cola defended itself by arguing that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), while having regulations against misbranding, permit products to named by their minority contents. But in a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court found that FDA regulations do not contravene laws against false advertising, and so Coca-Cola is susceptible to litigation for such practices.

The federal law central to the Supreme Court's ruling is the Lanham Act, which allows for civil action against any person or company who "uses in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof" that "misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin" of a product or service."

Ironically, POM Wonderful itself has been hit with charges of improper labeling. In 2010 the FDA found on POM Wonderful's Website (included on the product's label and thus considered an extension)"serious violations" of federal law in relation to claims that the juice "is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease," claims either unsubstantiated insufficiently substantiated based on research funded by the company itself. In 2012 the Federal Trade Commission ordered POM Wonderful to cease and desist "any representation, in any manner, expressly or by implication, including through the use of a product name, endorsement, depiction, illustration, trademark or trade name, about the health benefits, performance or efficacy of any covered product, unless the representation is nonmisleading."

"POM isn’t just a brand behaving badly, or an isolated incident," notes David Vinjamuri in a 2012 Forbes article. "It’s the result of a law that has systematically made it harder for the U.S. consumer to understand the real effects of dietary supplements."

The particular law Vinjamuri has in his sights is the Dietary Health Supplement and Education Act of 1994, which leaves it to manufacturers to self-regulate claims of the health benefits of dietary supplements, so long there are no promises about treating or curing any illness.

"All of this harms both consumers and brands," Vinjamuri writes. "Consumers are not in a position to critically evaluate drug trials.  For instance, many consumers do not consider the difference in credibility between small-scale manufacturer-sponsored studies and large double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies that are the medical community’s gold standard."

Add to the minefield of the food-labeling terrain the fact that the FDA allows for a 20 percent margin of error when it comes to nutritional value, a fact that "doesn't bode well for diabetic carb counters, folks with high blood pressure who are watching sodium intake, or moms looking to boost the iron content of their babies' diets," registered dietician Tamara Duker Freuman noted in U.S. News & World Report in 2012. "The FDA has never established a systematic, random label-auditing process, and compliance with the law is expected to be self-enforced by food manufacturers."

For many food producers, particularly large corporations, the only way food labeling will get more accurate is if the oversight and penalties become far stronger than they are currently. A pound of flesh is worth an ounce of prevention, because any food producers intentionally obfuscating the contents of its products deserves to have a huge piece taken out of its hide. Stripping each offender's license to distribute all its food products—allowing for reinstatement only at a heavy cost, along with a demonstrable reorganization sufficient to convince the pertinent regulatory agencies that the company has changed its ways—would be a good start.

Improperly labeled foodstuffs can contribute quite literally to death. And while such serious harms pertain only to the extreme allergic reactions that some people have to certain specific foods, consumers shouldn't have less freedom to make informed decisions for themselves just because they might not die when misinformed.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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