WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Don't judge a product by its label.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based here, delivered that message at a press conference in a House office building last week.
"A tremendous number of labels try to trick shoppers into thinking that the foods contain more of what consumers want than they actually do," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI. "The Food and Drug Administration should require labels to include words like 'artificially flavored' in big print as part of the products' names, and labels should not be allowed to depict ingredients, like fruit, if products don't contain significant amounts."
The CSPI said it filed a new petition to the FDA last week for more legible ingredient labels on packaged foods as well as a letter referencing former petitions. The group previously asked the FDA to put a stop to misleading claims and to require a declaration of percentages of key ingredients, which many American companies provide on European products.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) vowed to introduce a new bill and push for the passage of others at the press conference. She said she plans to introduce a bill that requires companies to list food allergens contained in the product and would support bills addressing expiration dates on all food packages and closing the food additive "loophole."
Jacobson, who displayed a number of products with the alleged "misleading" labels and packaging, pointed to specific examples such as Quaker Oats' Strawberries & Cream Oatmeal, which does not contain strawberries, just dried apple bits, and Betty Crocker carrot cake mix, which contains less carrots than any other ingredient.
In its new petition, the CSPI is requesting the FDA to require companies to use larger print, a clearer typeface, upper-and-lower-case letters and, whenever possible, black letters on white background. Major and minor ingredients are separated out, space is provided for information about allergens and the whole label is surrounded by a box.
Executives from the National Food Processors Association and Grocery Manufacturers of America, who attended the press conference, dismissed CSPI's claims and proposed new labels.
"The product names, pictures and flavor descriptors on packaging are there to attract the customer's attention and to describe the product and its characterizing flavor or taste," said Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Food Processors Association.
She noted that mandatory information on food labels, already enforced by the FDA, should be limited to what is needed for health and safety purposes. "The new requirements sought by CSPI, including percentage ingredient labeling, do not fit that description," she said.
Lisa Katic, GMA's director of scientific and nutrition policy, said her association adheres to the "strict rules about how companies can relay information to consumers about how a product tastes."
She said CSPI is "confusing two separate parts of the labeling package."
"The front of the package is designed so that consumers can make quick decisions about products based on a variety of factors, including how a product tastes," she said. "FDA rules anticipated that consumers are sometimes too busy to stop and read all of the information on the back of the package."
It is the back of the box that tells a consumer about the nutrition facts and ingredients.
"The rules are there to make sure that food companies are being truthful and not misleading," a GMA spokesman said.