Watchdog Group Calls Out Food Products
Why Isn't the Government Doing More to Stop It?
WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2005 — - The labels
on some popular grocery store products are misleading consumers
into thinking they're healthier than they really are, a food safety
advocacy organization charged today.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest listed
six products it says try to fool consumers with fraudulent labels.
The box for Betty Crocker's carrot cake mix shows pieces of carrot,
for example, but the only vegetable -- the 19th ingredient --
is carrot powder.
The CSPI -- which has been nicknamed "the
food police" by critics who cite the group's repeated warnings
about food labeling -- says it had to use tweezers to pick out
the broccoli from Quaker Oats' Pasta Roni with broccoli.
Smucker's Simply 100% Fruit Spread is actually 30 percent strawberries,
and the rest is less expensive apple or pear juice, the group
Food manufacturers -- including Smuckers -- say
their labels are within federal guidelines. "People want
to eat better, but the food industry is just delivering a lot
of hype, not the real thing," said CSPI Legal Affairs Director
Group: FDA Is Bowing to Industry Pressure
The group today said the blame rests squarely on
the federal government.
The CSPI says its attempts to get the Food and Drug
Administration to enforce labeling laws already on the books have
fallen on deaf federal ears. It says the FDA is under-funded and
The FDA told ABC News truth in labeling remains
a priority. But some states are not buying their claim.
"There is no question that one of the reasons why the FDA
may be so lax in its enforcement is pressure from the food companies
or other special interests," said Connecticut Attorney General
Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal has already won a case against
a Pepsi subsidiary for making unproven health claims.
"These kinds of health claims endanger our
citizens, particularly our children," he said. He says he'll
sue if the federal government won't.
Are Some Low-Cal Food Claims Big Fat Lies?
Amid a National Obesity Crisis, Some Fat, Calorie Label Claims
Found to Be Bogus
By MICHAEL S. JAMES
May 4, 2004 — - As obesity threatens to become the nation's
No. 1 root cause of preventable death, and diet crazes have Americans
counting calories off of labels, are some food manufacturers misleading
consumers in ways that may cause them to pack on extra pounds?
Even as U.S. health officials are asking restaurants
and packagers to voluntarily clarify their food's fat, calorie
and portion-size labels, they are accusing other companies of
breaking existing rules. For example, as officials laid out their
new policy recently, a doughnut entrepreneur sat in jail over
dubious "low-fat" labels. And in a case that reminded
some of a plot from the sitcom Seinfeld, a New York frozen dessert
chain was being accused of false claims about fat and calories.
"Whenever I pick up things that I'm not familiar
with, or if I have questions about them, I look at the label,"
says Stuart Fullerton, a Chicago-based federal prosecutor who
helped put the doughnut fraudster in jail. "That's why we
have the label. It is near and dear to everyone's heart. We all
do it, and we all rely on the truthfulness of what is on those
History of Cases
Though critics say food labels and printed claims
generally are truthful, the doughnut and frozen dessert accusations
are among the latest in a long line of cases where certain food
producers — including some of America's biggest food companies
— have been accused of violating federal rules that define
label or advertising claims such as "low calorie," "reduced
fat," and "lean."
In the past decade, the Federal Trade Commission
publicly challenged such familiar brands as Pizzeria Uno restaurants,
Promise margarine, Mrs. Fields cookies, Eskimo Pie ice cream,
and the advertising agencies for Dannon yogurt and Häagen
Dazs frozen yogurt, for allegedly false claims on fat, calories,
sugar or cholesterol in advertisements. The companies generally
did not admit liability but agreed to change their ads.
Federal agencies aren't the only forum for complaints.
Recently, a snack food company faced customer lawsuits after a
published analysis claimed it misstated fat and calorie content.
In an ongoing case, the New York City Department
of Consumer Affairs is negotiating with the owners of eight CremaLita
frozen dessert stores after alleging "deceptive and misleading
trade practices." Despite CremaLita's advertising claims,
the city said in December that federal Food and Drug Administration
lab tests showed the desserts are not really ice cream, "not
'low calorie' or 'fat free,' and certain flavors of its product
are not 'cholesterol free' or 'low fat.'"
New York's media outlets have cited similarities
to a Seinfeld episode, in which characters gain weight after eating
"fat free" frozen yogurt that gets exposed in a city
crackdown. CremaLita says the original charges were overstated.
"There were serious errors in the FDA methodology leading
to a substantial overstatement of CremaLita's calorie count, fat
content and other nutritional information on which the New York
City Department of Consumer Affairs based its original charges
— a statement we believe they would agree with," CremaLita
President Allison Britz said in an e-mailed statement.
The New York agency says it also is investigating
a second frozen dessert chain, though it has not yet made any
Not Tough Enough?
In real life, alleged false claims often bring a
fine or an order to stop food mislabeling. But the head of a group
calling for tougher and more thorough enforcement of food-labeling
fraud says it's no laughing matter when label liars can get off
"A company can fatten its profits considerably
by cheating people," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive
director of Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington,
D.C. "I can't tell you how many complaints we file with the
FDA, and their perennial complaint is we don't have the staff
to go after these people — and the FTC is the same."
Jacobson says it is not easy to spot label distortions
"You have to be a lawyer
or a scientist," Jacobson says. "You really have to
read labels very closely, and the average person has a lot of
other things on his or her mind."
He says misleading labels don't always involve
blatant violations of fat or calorie levels, which can be strictly
defined by the FDA. His organization's Web site gives examples
of brand-name products it says claim to be "natural"
— a term that is not regulated — but contain artificial
ingredients, or imply one type of ingredient, but contain cheaper,
often less-healthy substitutes.
For example, according to Jacobson, a popular type
of peach oatmeal actually contains "dehydrated apple bits,"
not peaches, and a popular brand of "blueberry" waffles
contain coloring, but no blueberries. "There's an old country
music song called, the big print giveth and the small print taketh
away, and that's what a lot of these deceptions are," he
At least two doughnut vendors have paid with jail time for their
deceptions. Robert Ligon, 69, who ran a Paducah, Ky.-based company
that used multiple names, pleaded guilty to mail fraud for allegedly
shipping "low-fat" doughnuts to health food stores nationwide.
He was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, starting in January
of this year.
Fullerton, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District
of Illinois who prosecuted the case, says Ligon committed "a
betrayal of trust." Fullerton adds that Ligon bought conventional
doughnuts and pastries from Cloverhill Pastry-Vend Inc., a Chicago
baking company, for 25 to 33 cents, re-labeled them as a premium
health food product, and sold them for $1 each.
"This is all fine, except that Ligon's labels
— the labels that he had people put on them — were
false," Fullerton says. "They dramatically understated
the calories and the fat content of these doughnuts."
Rudolph Hejny, a Chicago case agent for the FDA,
which has looked at Ligon's activities as far back as 1995, says
an FDA raid on Ligon's storage facility netted 18,720 doughnuts
and thousands of cinnamon rolls. One example, billed as a "carob
coated" doughnut with three grams of fat and 135 calories,
actually was a chocolate doughnut that contained 18 grams of fat
and 530 calories. In order to qualify as "low-fat" under
federal guidelines, a product must have less than three grams
of fat per serving. Doughnuts, which tend to be fried in fat,
Prior Case: Ligon is not the only person in the
Chicago area who ran a doughnut-dupe scheme.
In September 2000, Vernon L. Patterson, then 43, president of
Genesis II Foods Inc. of Chicago, pleaded guilty to misbranding
food products, mail fraud, and unlawful monetary transactions
for repackaging and reselling irregular or day-old pastries purchased
Officials stress Cloverhill simply sells packaged
pastries, and was not in any way complicit with either Ligon or
Patterson. But the bakery is among several details of the two
cases that appear virtually identical — also including reduced
fat and calorie claims for ersatz "carob coated" doughnuts
and other pastries, officials say. Authorities say around 1994
they received numerous complaints from distributors, dieticians,
health food stories and consumers about alleged misrepresentation
involving Patterson's products.
"One woman in Georgia feared for the health
of her husband, who liked the 'skinny' [Patterson] products, but
who also had diabetes," according to an article about the
Patterson case on the FDA's Web site. "Another woman in Mississippi
piled on the pounds during the six months that she ate $500 worth
of allegedly skinny products. Similar complaints continued to
filter in from all over the country, and many were accompanied
by product samples."
The case struck a chord among dieters and others
in the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago. "Everybody in the
office was outraged," says Madeleine Murphy, the assistant
U.S. attorney on the case. "I've had offenders that have
committed crimes that were far more serious to the public health
… but there's something unique about this case."
A judge sentenced Patterson to a year and a day
in jail, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered
him to pay a total of $3,925 in restitution to people who could
document being defrauded. Patterson began serving his term in
‘Eating Themselves to Death’
The prison sentences for the doughnut scammers came
as Americans generally are growing fatter, and ailments stemming
from obesity and lack of exercise are threatening to overtake
those from smoking as America's No. 1 preventable cause of death,
according to a government study.
"Far too many
Americans are literally eating themselves to death,"
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said March
12 at a news conference where the government sought "voluntary
compliance" by restaurants to list the calorie content of
dishes on their menus, and by food packagers to clarify total
calories and serving sizes on labels.
Existing laws require food packagers to list calories
per serving, as well as fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates,
sugar, fiber and protein content. But officials say some manufacturers
claim there are multiple servings in packages that consumers might
perceive to be a single serving. Such labeling can lead to lower
totals for fat and calories, and require consumers to multiply
by the number of servings to get the full total.
McDonald's fries come with a surprise
02/15/06 CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- And another thing about
McDonald's fries: They're not gluten-free.
Not long after disclosing that its french fries contain more trans
fat than thought, McDonald's Corp. said Monday that wheat and
dairy ingredients are used to flavor the popular menu item --
an acknowledgment it had not previously made.
The presence of those substances can cause allergic or other medical
reactions in food-sensitive consumers.
McDonald's had said until recently that its fries
were free of gluten and milk or wheat allergens and safe to eat
for those with dietary issues related to the consumption of dairy
items. But the fast-food company quietly added "Contains
wheat and milk ingredients" this month to the french fries
listing on its Web site.
The company said the move came in response to new
rules by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the packaged
foods industry, including one requiring that the presence of common
allergens such as milk, eggs, wheat, fish or peanuts be reported.
As a restaurant operator, Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's
does not have to comply but is doing so voluntarily.
McDonald's director of global nutrition, Cathy
Kapica, said its potato suppliers remove all wheat and dairy proteins,
such as gluten, which can cause allergic reactions. But the flavoring
agent in the cooking oil is a derivative of wheat and dairy ingredients,
and the company decided to note their presence because of the
FDA's stipulation that potential allergens be disclosed.
"We knew there were always wheat and dairy
derivatives in there, but they were not the protein component,"
she said. "Technically there are no allergens in there. What
this is an example of is science evolving" and McDonald's
responding as more is learned, she said.
While the company wanted to make consumers aware
that fries were derived in part from wheat and dairy sources,
she said, those who have eaten the product without problem should
be able to continue to do so without incident.
The acknowledgment has stirred anger and some concern among consumers
who are on gluten-free diets since it was posted on McDonald's
"If they're saying there's wheat and dairy
derivatives in the oil, as far as anyone with this disease is
concerned there's actually wheat in it," said New York resident
Jillian Williams, one of more than 2 million Americans with celiac
disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten.
"They should have disclosed that all along,"
she said. "They should never have been calling them gluten-free."
It's not the first time McDonald's forthrightness has been called
into question concerning what's in its famous fries.
The company paid $10 million in 2002 to settle a lawsuit by vegetarian
groups after it was disclosed that its fries were cooked in beef-flavored
oil despite the company's insistence in 1990 that it was abandoning
beef tallow for pure vegetable oil.
Last February, it paid $8.5 million to settle a
suit by a nonprofit advocacy group accusing the company of misleading
consumers by announcing plans in September 2002 to change its
cooking oil but then delaying the switch indefinitely within months.
Reluctant to change the taste of a top-selling item, McDonald's
has continued to maintain for the past three years that testing
Asked about the status of those efforts Monday,
Kapica said: "It's a very high priority and we are very committed
to continuing with testing and lowering the level of trans fat
without raising the level of saturated fat. ... It's a lot harder
than we originally thought but that is not stopping us."
FDA test finds extra virgin
22,000 gallons of imported oil is seized from warehouse
NEWARK, New Jersey (AP) -- More than a discerning palate has determined
that thousands of cans of Hermes and San Giovanni brands of extra
virgin olive oil weren't quite right.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested the
chemical composition of the oil and found it was really less expensive
soybean oil, prompting Thursday's seizure.
The U.S. Marshals Service seized 22,700 gallons
of oil, imported from Italy, at a trucking company warehouse in
Clifton. "It is a whole lot of faux olive oil," said
Mike Drewniak, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.
The labels on the 3-liter containers in 4,855 cases said the contents
were more expensive extra virgin olive oil or pomace olive oil.
Because olive oil is five to six times more expensive
than soybean oil, the potential estimated profit is about $105,600,
according to the FDA. "We will not permit New Jersey consumers
to be defrauded," Christie said in a statement.
The tainted oil includes Hermes' brand of extra virgin olive oil
and pomace oil and San Giovanni's brand of extra virgin oil. The
cans remain at the warehouse in Clifton under a state-ordered
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU EAT!