By Lyndsey Layton
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A08
In an unusually broad crackdown, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has notified 17 food companies, including major brands such as Gerber and Nestle, that they have violated federal laws by making false or misleading claims on their product packaging.
The agency sent warning letters to the companies Feb. 22 and gave them 15 days to respond with an explanation of how they intend to correct the labels. If the companies fail to do so, the FDA said it might take further action, including product seizures.
"This is a shot across the industry bow," said Gary L. Yingling, a partner at K&L Gates, who represents food manufacturers in matters before the FDA. "Instead of picking out one company and trying to make an example, they're going after them with a shotgun."
In an open letter to the food industry released Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg made it clear that accurate food labeling is a priority, considering the national battle against obesity and diet-related diseases. She wrote that she wants to work with the food industry to improve nutritional information available to consumers.
Some companies have voluntarily changed their packaging to comply with the law, but others have made false or misleading claims on packaging, which undermines the ability of consumers to make healthy choices, she wrote.
"Mislabeling is a real disservice to consumers because people are cheated and are led to believe their food is healthier than it is," said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who said he had been asking the agency for such action since 1970. "We're delighted that the FDA has issued an unprecedented flock of warning notices to companies big and small to clean up their labels."
The Obama administration surprised the food industry in May when the FDA notified General Mills that it was misbranding Cheerios by stating on package labels that the cereal can help reduce heart disease and cholesterol -- a drug claim that the agency said violated federal law.
In the recent round of warnings, Pompeian, a 104-year-old Baltimore company that sells olive oil and other products, received a letter stating that its "Pompeian Imported Extra Light Olive Oil" is misbranded because its fat content is not 50 percent less than that of regular olive oil, which would fit the legal definition of "light."
Frank Patton, the company's president, said the label should have said "Extra Light Tasting Olive Oil" and that it was a printing error, which he intends to correct when the next labels are printed.
He was surprised by the other companies that received warning letters. "These are reputable companies like Beech-Nut and so on," he said. "This isn't Joe's Garage packing something and sticking a label on it."
Diamond Foods received a warning letter because of unauthorized claims on its packaged walnuts that the product can treat, prevent or cure heart disease, arthritis and cancer, according to the FDA. The company said in a statement that it expects to change its labels and Web site information quickly.
At least one company indicated it will challenge the FDA's position.
"All statements made in connection with POM products are true and supported by unprecedented scientific research," said a statement released by POM Wonderful. "Once the FDA reviews and better understands the substantial science, we are confident that the agency will agree with our position."
The FDA says that POM Wonderful claims its product can treat, prevent or cure diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer. Those claims can only be made by drugs, and the company's juice has not been approved as a drug, the agency said.
Others that received warning letters from the FDA include:
-- Nestle Nutrition's Gerber Graduates Puffs. The company claims the snack is a "good source of iron, zinc, and Vitamin E." Those claims are not allowed on products intended for children younger than 2 because appropriate dietary levels have not been established for children in that age range, the FDA said. Nestle released a statement that it "intends to fully cooperate with the FDA to bring this matter to a conclusion."
-- The makers of Mrs. Smith's Coconut Custard Pie claim "0 trans fats" on the package front but do not disclose, as required by law, that the product has significant levels of saturated fat and total fat. Schwan's Consumer Brands, which makes the pies, did not respond to a message requesting comment.
The warning letters and full list of affected products can be found at http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ucm202859.htm.