By Amanda Gardner
FRIDAY, March 19 (HealthDay News) -- Reports in recent months of inaccurate, misleading ingredient lists or calorie-counts on store-bought foods are leading many to wonder if food-product labeling can be trusted, and who -- if anyone -- is checking that it's true.
Consider the following:
- A report published in January involving 29 reduced-calorie restaurant and packaged foods found that many products had an average 18 percent more calories than was stated on labels or menus;
- DNA studies done late last year by two New York City high school students found that one out of six products in their own kitchens had labeling that was flat-out wrong. This included cheese claiming to be made from sheep's milk that was actually plain old cow's milk and caviar that was Mississippi paddlefish instead of sturgeon, as advertised;
- According to a study released in 2009, about 2 percent of food products without a "may contain" warning actually do contain allergens. Even a trace of some allergens -- peanuts, for example -- could be lethal to some people.
And on March 3, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it had alerted 17 food manufacturers that the labeling on 22 of their products violated federal statutes. The problems included "unauthorized health claims, unauthorized nutrient content claims, and the unauthorized use of terms such as 'healthy.'" The companies were given 15 days to outline how they would correct the violations.
All of this lends urgency to a recent FDA "three-pronged initiative" for better oversight of food labeling. That effort includes moving food-ingredient information to the front of the package -- instead of burying it on the back -- and amending "serving size" amounts to reflect real-world eating practices, said agency spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Institute of Medicine, at the urging of the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is reviewing so-called "front of package" messages -- the symbols, logos and icons that give consumers nutritional information. The final report, to be used as a basis for federal regulations, should be out later this year.
In the meantime, can consumers trust what they read?
One representative of the nation's food makers stressed that an accusation of misleading label information doesn't imply guilt.
"Before any conclusions can be reached on any reports of purported labeling non-compliance, it would be necessary to check that the entity bringing those allegations was following the regulated procedures for sampling and testing, and the labeling conformed with the compliance parameters and rounding rules spelled out in regulations," said Regina Hildwine, senior director of science policy, labeling and standards for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "That said, it is up to each individual food manufacturer to make sure that their food labels are in compliance with the regulations. Overall, food manufacturers do an outstanding job of complying with all food labeling regulations."
Hildwine added that GMA is "working with FDA and USDA to develop new food label rules that are based on sound science and that are effective with busy parents."
On the other side of the argument, the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently sent a scathing report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration itemizing what it said were false food-label claims and demanding action.
"The FDA has not systematically tested the accuracy of the Nutrition Facts panel found on practically all products in grocery stores since 1996. There have been indications that some companies are cheating and there have been a number of private lawsuits challenging the veracity of calorie and fat disclosures on the nutrition fact panel," said CSPI legal advisor Bruce Silverglade. "There are a number of concerns the companies are not giving us the facts because apparently the federal cop on the beat is not checking up."
The FDA's DeLancey said that while her agency had not yet reviewed the CSPI report, it "is in the process of reviewing a number of food labels that may be false or misleading. We recently notified General Mills and Nestle of their labeling violations, and we will take additional actions against other companies as appropriate, in the near future."