A decision by Connecticut officials to enforce a little-known state law barring unenriched pastas from store shelves is stirring confusion and controversy in the natural foods industry on the East Coast.
Because of the action, an importer of specialty organic pastas and other products from Italy and the National Nutritional Foods Association are locked in a battle with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and are calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for help in settling the dispute.
Fortunately for the natural products industry, it's highly unlikely that the controversy will spread beyond Connecticut, and state officials are indicating they'd like to negotiate a settlement. Until a compromise settlement is reached, the product is back on the shelves of one of the two stores from which it was pulled.
The controversy started in mid-December when an inspector for the CDCP entered Edge of the Woods, a naturals grocer in New Haven, and ordered the store manager to stop selling a white pasta made by Bionaturae of Italy. The inspector said that because the organic pasta is not enriched with vitamins and minerals, selling it is illegal in Connecticut.
Store Manager Gretchen Munroe was furious and questioned the inspector about the law. But he refused to answer questions, so Munroe, who didn't know such a law existed, had no choice but to take it off the shelf.
"I asked him why he was focusing on just one product, because there are dozens of others that are the same," Munroe said. "I also asked him if he was pulling it from all the stores in Connecticut. He said, 'Don't make my job any harder than it already is.'"
Munroe said the store sells more than 50 cases of the product every month, making it Edge of the Woods' best-selling pasta.
Why the Bionaturae product was singled out is unclear, said Carla Bartolucci, owner of Euro-USA Trading Co., the Mystic, Conn.-based firm that imports the pasta from Italy. Initially, state officials said it was found during a routine inspection. But Munroe said the inspector walked in the store at opening time and went right to the product. Bartolucci suspects that another manufacturer singled out Bionaturae and complained to the state.
"I had no idea that there was a law like this in Connecticut," Bartolucci said. "We don't want to enrich this pasta. We also sell a whole-grain pasta, so it's not that we don't have an alternative."
The product was also ordered off the shelves at Food For Thought in Norwalk.
Bartolucci was contacted immediately by her distributor, and, in turn, she called the state. Initially, state officials were belligerent and said all sales of the product had to be stopped, Bartolucci said.
"They told me they were very, very serious about this."
The immediate pressure, apparently, convinced Greene to back off. He hasn't called for a state-wide ban.
"On a priority scale, this ranks pretty low," Greene told Natural Foods Merchandiser. "We know that no one is going to drop dead tomorrow because of this."
Laws to enrich food products were instituted early in the 20th century to assure that people received proper nutrition. But most states have since abandoned the rules because basic nutrition hasn't been a public health concern in the United States for decades.
"This regulation strikes at the heart of a consumer's right to choose," said Terry Farber, executive director of NNFA-East. "With so many varieties of food available today, if a consumer chooses an organic white pasta, that's her right," Farber said.
The rules also violate the natural products industry's concern about food additives. "We do not subscribe to enrichment. Adding ferrous sulfate to spaghetti doesn't make it a whole food," Farber said.
With the help of the NNFA and state legislators, Bartolucci convinced state regulators to allow a review of the statute by the FDA. Because the federal government does not require pastas to be enriched, attorneys from the FDA are trying to determine if federal rules override state laws. A ruling is expected soon.
But Bartolucci has been told by her attorney that state's rights are highly regarded by federal agencies, so a favorable ruling is unlikely. So Bartolucci isn't sitting on her pasta awaiting the decision. She's contracted with a laboratory to test a variety of pastas to determine nutrient values after cooking. If necessary, she'll use the information for future appeals.
"Some scientists have told me that a lot of nutrients are cooked out of pasta," Bartolucci said.
Her company sells the pasta in every state, so the state's action hasn't hurt the business, but it has complicated operations in Connecticut. Bartolucci said she's been asked by numerous store managers and distributors if there is something wrong with the product. At Food For Thought, the product is only being sold to consumers who ask for it, and the store won't order more until a ruling is issued by the state, a store manager said.
Bartolucci and Farber are hopeful that a settlement will be reached. But the NNFA also believes that Connecticut legislators must take action to take the law off the books.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 14