Companies put nutritional labels on products to help customers make informed choices about their health. However, a recent report points out a lack of federal oversight that means customers have to take companies' claims at their word without much assurance from the government, according to the Government Accountability Office, which said that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has for years failed to ensure the accuracy of the health claims made on food packaging.
"[The] FDA has limited assurance that domestic and imported foods comply with food labeling requirements, such as those prohibiting false or misleading labeling...FDA has reported that limited resources and authorities significantly challenge its efforts to carry out food safety responsibilities—challenges that also impact efforts to administer and enforce labeling requirements," the report said. "While the number of domestic food firms has increased, FDA has not increased the number of its inspections in response to this increase."
The report found that, among other things, that in 2007, the FDA inspected just 96 foreign food companies from 11 different countries out of the tens of thousands of companies from the 150 countries exporting food to the United States. The FDA could not provide data on how many product-specific label reviews have been conducted since 2000.
The GAO also found that the FDA lacks a proper system to track the number of complaints and violations and is still using an old computer system the agency agreed to eliminate in 2004.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a press release applauding the report and bashing the FDA for "looking the other way while consumers are being misled." The organization has tracked some claims they consider misleading and complained to the FDA, with limited results.
For example, the organization noted that the label for Thomas' Hearty Grains Double Fiber Honey Wheat Muffins label claimed the product was made with whole grain, though the predominant ingredient is white flour. Another example the CSPI gave was that the packaging for Mars Cocoa Via Brand Heart Healthy Snacks claimed to help reduce cholesterol even though the product contained "significant amounts" of saturated fat that would raise levels of bad cholesterol.
Conneticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who requested the report, issued a release calling the report's contents "troubling."
"The FDA seems incapable of preventing companies from providing false or misleading information to consumers," she said. "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."