The Federal Trade Commission yesterday charged Kraft Inc. with false and misleading advertising, saying that the company's commercials for its "Singles" processed cheese slices exaggerated the product's calcium content.
In the first FTC complaint against a major national advertiser in a year, the commission voted 4-1 to seek an administrative order barring Kraft from making misleading nutritional claims about the sliced cheese and its other food products.
Joining with the majority was FTC Chairman Daniel Oliver, who has repeatedly voiced a hands-off policy on most advertising enforcement, arguing that any crackdown could stop the flow of valuable information to consumers.
The lone dissenter was Commissioner Mary Azcuenaga, who said she disagreed with the timing of the complaint but not necessarily with its substance. She would not elaborate on her comment.
The FTC's complaint now goes to an administrative law judge for a ruling, and then back to the commission for a final decision.
The complaint comes three days after another set of Singles commercials was selected by a coalition of consumer groups as one of the 10 worst ad campaigns in the past year, also for allegedly misleading claims about calcium.
Kraft took issue with the FTC action, saying in a statement that "we strongly disagree. Kraft has always been committed to informative and truthful advertising, and the ads in question clearly meet these criteria."
At issue in the FTC complaint are two specific claims: that "Kraft Singles have five ounces of milk per slice" -- an implication that the slices contain the same amount of calcium as that much milk -- and that some competing brands of imitation cheese slices "use hardly any milk."
"In truth and in fact, a slice of Kraft Singles does not contain the same amount of calcium as five ounces of milk," the FTC complaint said. Rather, a slice contains about 70 percent of the amount of calcium Kraft claims -- about 3.5 ounces of calcium, commission officials said.
Additionally, the complaint charged, "Kraft Singles do not contain more calcium than do most imitation cheese slices." With imitation cheese slices fortified with calcium, the rival brands contain virtually the same amount of calcium as Singles, FTC sources said.
"Nutritional information is important to consumers, but it can be difficult for them to verify," said William MacLeod, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection. "That is why we seek to maintain the accuracy of nutritional claims."
The ads in question no longer are being broadcast on television or printed in newspapers and magazines, Kraft spokeswoman Magnes Welsh said yesterday. Current ads, she noted, clearly state that Singles slices "actually contain 70 percent of the calcium of five ounces of milk."
The FTC's complaint does not cite the Kraft ads that were named among the nation's worst commercials by consumer groups earlier this week. Those ads promoted the cheese by saying that "ounce for ounce, Kraft Singles have over four times more calcium than milk." The Center for Science in the Public Interest complained that these ads were misleading because they left the impression that a slice of cheese had four times as much calcium as a glass of milk, when in fact it would take 9 1/2 slices of Singles to get four times the calcium of a glass of milk.
The complaint comes at a time when the agency has been under attack by consumer groups and some members of Congress to attack major national advertisers.
Since Oliver assumed the chairmanship 14 months ago, the commission has approved only one complaint against a major advertiser. Last June it cited R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for ads that downplay the relationship between heart disease and smoking. In that case, Oliver was the lone dissenter.
An FTC administrative law judge later dismissed the complaint, ruling that the ad was protected by the First Amendment. However, the judge's decision is now being reviewed by the entire commission.
The Kraft complaint "is a clear answer to the claim that the FTC doesn't take on the big boys," said one advertising executive who asked not to be identified. "Kraft is clearly one of the big boys. The legal corps of all other major advertisers will be taking a close look at this decision."