Texas Slaps Embargo on Kellogg’s Heartwise Cereal
Undated (AP) _ Texas officials have imposed a distribution embargo on Kellogg Co.’s Heartwise cereal in Texas in a dispute over labeling.
On Tuesday, the Texas Health Department ordered warehouses to halt distribution of the cereal. It accused Kellogg of deceptive labeling and of failing to warn consumers about potential allergic reactions to psyllium, a whole grain touted by Kellogg as a cholesterol fighter.
Texas is the only state that has sought to ban sales of Heartwise, which was introduced last year by the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal maker and has prompted a federal inquiry into the safety of psyllium.
Last week, Kellogg filed a federal lawsuit in Dallas against the Texas Health Department and the attorney general’s office to try to ward off the embargo and allow the company to retain its labeling.
″For the state of Texas to detain Heartwise on the basis of their belief that it’s an unapproved drug is totally ridiculous and a total disregard for the science behind psyllium,″ Kellogg spokesman Joseph Stewart said.
Kellogg maintains that psyllium, a grain grown mainly in India, has been scientifically shown to help reduce cholesterol when used as part of a complete nutritional diet. The soluble fiber is used in laxatives and its inclusion in Heartwise has led to a controversy in the food industry about whether the cereal should be considered a drug or food.
The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing psyllium’s safety and the company’s cholesterol-fighting claims.
″I think this goes back to the labeling of foods with druglike claims,″ said Dan Sowards, chief of the food branch for the Texas Department of Health. ″The FDA ... has said products that continued to make health claims would be subject to scrutiny.″
Sowards said his department has asked Kellogg to change the product’s name and remove heart symbols from the box as well as references to hospital endorsements. It also has asked for inclusion of warnings about potential allergic reactions to psyllium.
Sowards said the FDA has been informed of at least 50 cases of allergic reactions, some requiring hospitalization.
Kellogg maintains Heartwise has been shown to be safe. Most grains, including wheat, cause allergic reactions in a very small percentage of people, Stewart said.
Three independent university studies released in April found psyllium to be more effective in fighting cholesterol than wheat or oat bran cereals.
Stewart said the embargo’s timing - less than a week after the lawsuit was filed - shows that it is ″politically motivated and not out of any concern for public safety.″
He said the company is worried about the controversy’s affect on the cereal’s sales, which have been disappointing.
John McMillin, a food analyst for Prudential-Bache Securities of New York, said those worries are justified.
″This just might be the nail in the coffin for Heartwise,″ McMillin said. ″It is my own feeling that the state of Texas has no business doing this ... but consumers, and the state of Texas, seem to perceive this as a drug and not as a food.″
General Mills Inc. pulled its psyllium-based cereal, Benefit, in January, citing poor sales.