The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) claims that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't have the resources or the will to stop deceptive labeling and typically does nothing even when flagrantly fraudulent labels are brought to its attention.
"Food manufacturers are shamelessly tricking consumers who are trying to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," said CSPI director of legal affairs Bruce Silverglade.
"Too many processed foods contain only token amounts of the healthful ingredients highlighted on labels and are typically loaded with fats, refined sugars, refined flour, and salt, in various combinations."
The FDA has taken action on such matters. Last week for example, it issued warning letters to 29 companies, telling them to stop making disease prevention or treatment claims on their websites and product labels.
The most common claims made on the company's websites are that cherries contain potent anticancer agents, can relieve pain of gout or arthritis, and are beneficial for heart health.
But in the absence of formal health claims linking cherries to a reduce risk of any disease or specific effect on the body, the FDA told the companies that wording on their websites and/or product labels constitutes "serious violations of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act".
Nonetheless, the CSPI believes that more should be done to protect consumers. It has joined forces with Representative Rosa DeLauro and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to demand an immediate stop to misleading food labels.
"Budget cuts have decimated the number of FDA regulators working on food labeling, while their responsibilities for monitoring the way food is packaged and marketed have increased substantially," said DeLauro at a Washington DC press conference last week.
"We must do everything we can to encourage healthy eating and reduce obesity in this country by restoring integrity to the FDA and empowering people to make informed decisions about the foods they are eating. The FDA must investigate labeling violations, and take action to ensure consumers have accurate nutrition information."
The CSPI says that it has filed complaints with the FDA about egregiously mislabeled foods for years - for example, "blueberry" waffles with no blueberries or "strawberry" yogurt for kids with no strawberries.
But food manufacturers have taken inaction as a signal to make even more deceptive claims, said the group.
In a letter to acting FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, CSPI said that FDA's Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements (ONPLDS), does not have any plan to identify and remedy misleading labeling. Field inspectors only review labels during their inspections of manufacturers' facilities, during which label violations are not a central focus and which occur on average only once every five years.
The few warnings issued by the agency typically involve only obvious violations, such as the complete omission of a Nutrition Facts panel or the inclusion of an overt drug-like claim. And of 9,000 employees, the FDA has the equivalent of only four full-time headquarters staff enforcing food-labeling laws-a staffing level that CSPI says has proven to be completely incapable of ensuring honest labels on the $500 billion worth of FDA-regulated foods.
Nevertheless, the CPSI insists that even with those few staffers, the agency could still be much more aggressive in policing misleading labels.
"Mislabeling food as healthy is hazardous to health," said Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal. "The mislabeling mentality in the food industry is completely out of control, taking consumers for fools.
"An understaffed, unmotivated FDA is unacceptable."
CSPI and private consumer-action lawyers have already persuaded major companies including Tropicana and Quaker Foods, both units of PepsiCo, and Pinnacle Foods, the maker of Aunt Jemima Frozen Blueberry Waffles, to improve their labeling practices.