The federal government's watchdog agency is giving the nation's food regulators failing marks when it comes to preventing false and misleading labeling.
The report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while the number of food firms and products has increased dramatically, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) oversight and enforcement efforts "have not kept pace."
The FDA is supposed to conduct label reviews when it inspects foreign food firms, but in 2007 it inspected just 95 firms overseas - there are tens of thousands - and in only 11 countries out of 150 that export food to the U.S.
According to the report, the FDA has not done random sampling to test the accuracy of Nutrition Facts labels since the 1990s -- and the agency has conducted very limited non-random nutrition testing on products whose labels were suspected of being inaccurate.
The most serious enforcement actions FDA can take -- seizures, injunctions, and import refusals -- are rare for labeling violations. The report further found that the FDA lacks a system for tracking the enforcement activities of its field offices.
"The findings of this latest GAO investigation that the FDA seems incapable of preventing companies from providing false or misleading information to consumers are very troubling," said representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of the FDA's budget. "These findings by the GAO seem to point to another example of how FDA mismanagement is failing consumers. As Congress moves next year toward reforming FDA's food safety responsibilities, this is another area that warrants close examination and potentially a major overhaul."
GAO called on the FDA to "better leverage" its resources and to develop "detailed information on how new legal authorities would help address the shortcomings identified in this report."
The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says recent deceptive claims include:
• Kraft's Crystal Light Immunity Berry Pomegranate drink falsely claimed that its vitamins A, C, and E will "help maintain a healthy immune system." The FDA said it would consider placing the issue on its work plan for next year.
• Mars Cocoa Via Brand Heart Healthy Snacks claimed that it "Promotes a healthy heart," and "reduce[s] bad cholesterol." The chocolate candy contains significant amounts of saturated fat, which can raise bad cholesterol. The company has ignored an FDA warning to halt the claim, and the agency has failed to follow-up its demands in court.
• Land O Lakes has claimed that "Omega-3 All Natural Eggs" are a "good source of heart healthy nutrition," despite the fact that the eggs contain too much heart-unhealthy cholesterol to make health claims under FDA rules. The FDA has failed to act on a CSPI complaint urging the agency to stop the claim.
• Nestle Crunch Ice Cream Bars have claimed "0g Trans Fat," but contain 11 grams of saturated fat, which also raises cholesterol levels. The FDA failed to act on a CSPI complaint over the issue.
• Capri Sun beverages were labeled as "All Natural" even though they were made with high-fructose corn syrup (when contacted by CSPI, the company said it was modifying the label). The FDA has failed to formally define the term.
• Gerber Graduates for Toddlers Fruit Juice Snacks depicted fruits on the label and suggested that the product is made from fruit. But the product's predominant ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. CSPI, but not the FDA, is challenging the claim in federal court.
• Thomas' Hearty Grains Double Fiber Honey Wheat Muffins label has boasted that the product is "made with whole grain," but the predominant ingredient is white flour. The FDA issued a weak policy pronouncement on the issue, but has taken no enforcement action.
The GAO report also called on the FDA to collaborate with other federal agencies and stakeholders to "evaluate labeling approaches and options for developing a simplified, empirically valid system that conveys overall nutritional quality to mitigate labels that are misleading consumers."
CSPI formally petitioned the FDA in 2006 to develop a universal front-of-label symbol that would communicate nutritional value and has advocated funding for an Institute of Medicine study to identify the best system of label symbols. The FDA held a public hearing on the issue in 2007, but has not taken any further action.