The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives "a complete pass to blatantly false and deceptive advertising claims" by the organic industry, according to an Aug. 5 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal by Henry I. Miller. A physician and molecular biologist, Miller is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and founding director of FDA's Office of Biotechnology.
Whole Foods claims organic foods are grown "without toxic or persistent pesticides," Miller wrote, although organic farmers use both synthetic and natural pesticides. Also, organic products use so-called "absence claims" on labeling noting a useless distinction to make them seem superior, Miller said. For example, orange juice or canned tomatoes may be labeled "non-GMO," even though he said there are currently no genetically modified oranges or tomatoes on the market.
The FDA has published guidance against using false or misleading statements in food labeling, Miller said, although the agency hasn't taken any enforcement action. As a result, deception erodes consumer choice and trust in the market and rigs the game. "Consumers need aggressive FDA action to curb these abuses and level the playing field," he said. On Aug. 7, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted a response to Miller's editorial and said he would be issuing more detailed information in coming weeks on what different terms mean on food packaging in order to help consumers.
The examples Miller cites in his opinion piece have the potential to influence consumer behavior since shoppers who see the Non-GMO Project butterfly label on both organic and nonorganic products may be unaware that many of them couldn't contain GMOs.
The likely response among most people is to assume that food products with such a label are better than those actually containing GMOs. And since a recent online survey found that 41% of consumers think about the presence of GMOs when buying foods, manufacturers stand to lose money and market share if their products without a non-GMO label are viewed as less desirable.
It's hard to know how the food industry might best use labeling and label claims to assure customers that their products are free of GMOs and grown without toxic pesticides. If such claims are 100% true, shoppers will want to know and the claims should be made. But if the claims are disingenuous, misleading and only tell part of the story, a company's credibility could be at stake.
Another example is labeling popcorn, eggs or chili peppers as gluten-free, when the products have never contained gluten. "...[D]on't be swayed to buy anything you normally wouldn’t, just because its label says it’s gluten free," advised James Cave, Huffington Post men's lifestyle editor, in a 2016 article. Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity might appreciate the label information, but it could cast doubt on a company's commitment to accuracy and transparency for someone who knows what naturally contains gluten without needing to examine the labels.
It will be interesting to see how the FDA responds to this discussion and whether the agency issues further regulations in addition to what it has already published — or decides to more aggressively enforce existing guidance. After all, it's one thing to make false and misleading label claims under FDA's definitions and another to make label claims which are technically true but beside the point, such as the gluten-free popcorn.
What seems to be missing is adequate consumer education so shoppers know what the various labeling claims mean and whether they're pertinent or not. The FDA and food manufacturers would be doing consumers a big favor — and potentially avoiding more confusion and damage to brand reputations — if they would focus more effort in that direction.