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Consumer Groups Say Misleading Claims Persist In Advance of Labeling Rules Graphic

February 13, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ The carton of Citrus Hill is labeled ″Fresh Choice″ - but the orange juice is made from water, concentrate and taste enhancers.

Kellogg’s ″Heartwise″ cereal praises the nutritional value of a grain ingredient, though its safety is questioned by federal regulators.

Butterball ″80 percent fat free″ turkey bologna delivers more than 75 percent of its calories from fat.

Under the current absence of national standards for many food labels, consumer advocates say claims such as these are creating misinformation in grocery store aisles.

A federal food-labeling measure has established spring 1993 as a deadline for revising these types of claims. But instead of moving to comply with it, many companies apparently are going the opposite direction, some experts say - possibly to establish brand loyalty before the new rules force them to change.

″We’re starting to see manufacturers - not with malicious intent, but with marketing intent - trying to take advantage of the opportunity over the next two years,″ said Phil Lempert, editor of The Lempert Report, a food marketing newsletter.

Manufacturers of criticized brands defend their labels, saying they’ve been unfairly singled out by overzealous consumer activists. Moreover, they say it’s difficult for them to move toward compliance with definitions that haven’t even been promulgated.

″When we have a clear rule then we will certainly make sure our brands are in line with that rule,″ said Wendy Jacques, a spokeswoman at Proctor & Gamble Co., which makes Citrus Hill Fresh Choice.

Nonetheless, consumer advocates say, confusion is spreading. Products that have come under scrutiny by regulators range from ″fresh″ bottled pasta sauce to ″light″ cheese cake. But the newest problem area to emerge is over contents described as ″fat free.″

The criticism about labeling prompted Congress last fall to approve a Food and Drug Administration proposal for new labeling standards for packaged foods, seafood, dairy products and fresh produce.

FDA officials said food manufacturers have until spring 1993 to adhere to upcoming definitions for commonly used terms such as ″fat free,″ ″low cholesterol″ and ″light.″

Officials at the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, which handles rules for meat-based foods, say they also will try to define terms like ″fresh,″ for which there are no specific health or nutrition links.

In the meantime, law enforcers say they have been pursuing allegations of misleading labeling on a case-by-case basis. Federal rules require that labels be truthful.

While enforcement efforts appear to have clarified instances of misleading labeling among oat-based products, the number of new products making fat-free or low fat claims rose nearly 50 percent to about 454 last year, says Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd., a Naples, N.Y. research firm.

In a recent five-page list of food products it considers misleading, the Center for Science in the Public Interest criticized Butterball turkey ″80 percent fat free″ bologna for expressing fat content as a percentage of product weight, which it called a ″meaningless claim.″

Lillian Cheung, a nutritionist who is director of the Harvard Nutrition and Fitness Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, agreed with the consumer group’s contention that the more meaningful way to express fat content is as a percentage of total calories.

Using the caloric measure, the 6 grams of fat in each 70-calorie slice of the Butterball turkey bologna add up to 77 percent of total caloric content.

″It’s very confusing because the consumer most likely thinks this is really very low in fat, when if you evaluate the back and start to take a look at the numbers of grams of fat calories it’s quite high,″ said Cheung.

Margaret Glavin, the Agriculture Department’s deputy administrator for regulatory programs, said the claim, though permitted under current rules, ″is one we would consider not allowing″ under upcoming proposed guidelines.

Swift-Eckrich Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill., which makes Butterball, referred questions about the product to a company attorney, Dennis Gott, who did not return repeated telephone calls.

Other allegations of misleading labeling have led to time-consuming investigations - and sometimes extreme measures by law enforcers.

The Texas State Attorney General’s Office barred Kellogg’s ″Heartwise″ cereal from the state last year, saying the health benefits for the product’s key grain ingredient, psyllium, were unsubstantiated.

The FDA has also taken aim at the product, which outside Texas is still distributed nationally, after questions emerged about the psyllium’s safety. Kellogg acknowledged that consumption of the product has prompted 58 reports of allergic reactions.

Kellogg Co., based in Battle Creek, Mich., said it has properly dealt with the matter with a warning added to the Heartwise cereal box panel about the potential for allergic reactions. ″We remain very committed to Heartwise,″ said Celeste Clark, a Kellogg spokeswoman.

In another case, the FDA and the Texas State Attorney General’s Office for the past year have been locked in a war of words with Proctor & Gamble over its Citrus Hill Fresh Choice juice.

In repeated letters to the Cincinnati-based consumer products giant, the FDA has asked for the removal of ″fresh,″ ″squeezed″ and ″no additives″ from the label because the juice is made of concentrate from Brazil-grown oranges, water, and additives like orange oil and orange essence.

Company spokeswoman Wendy Jacques said P&G will be eliminating the phrases ″we don’t add anything″ and ″no additives″ from its label, but will stand by the Fresh Choice name.

Jacques said ″fresh″ was justified because a company survey showed consumers believed the word referred to the product’s taste, not composition. The FDA has questioned that assertion.

Last week the FDA, in an article in the Federal Register, asked all manufacturers to refrain from using ″fresh″ for processed products until it had established standardized definitions for the term. The formal request came after P&G complained it was singled out by regulators.

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