FDA cracks down on food labels

WASHINGTON — In an unusually broad crackdown, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has notified 17 food companies, including major brands such as Gerber and Nestle, that they have violated federal laws by making false or misleading claims on their product packaging.

The agency sent warning letters to the companies Feb. 22 and gave them 15 days to respond with an explanation of how they intend to correct the labels. If the companies fail to do so, the FDA said it may take further action, including seizure of products.

"This is a shot across the industry bow," said Gary Yingling, a partner at K&L Gates, who represents food manufacturers in matters before the FDA. "Instead of picking out one company and trying to make an example, they're going after them with a shotgun."

In an open letter to the food industry released Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg made it clear that accurate food labeling is a priority at a time when the country is fighting obesity and diet-related diseases.

"Mislabeling is a real disservice to consumers because people are cheated and are led to believe their food is healthier than it is," said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who noted he had been asking the agency for such action since 1970. "We're delighted that the FDA has issued an unprecedented flock of warning notices to companies big and small to clean up their labels."

In the recent round of warnings, Pompeian Inc., a 104-year-old Baltimore company that sells olive oil, received a letter stating that its "Pompeian Imported Extra Light Olive Oil" is misbranded because its fat content is not 50 percent less than that regular olive oil, which would fit the legal definition of "light."

Other companies that received warning letters from the FDA include:

* Nestle Nutrition's Gerber Graduates Puffs, which claims it is a "good source of iron, zinc, and Vitamin E." Those claims are not allowed on products intended for children younger than 2 years because appropriate dietary levels have not been established for children in that age range, the FDA said. Nestle released a statement that it "intends to fully cooperate with the FDA."

* Mrs. Smith's Coconut Custard Pie claims "0 Transfats" on the front of the package but does not disclose, as required by law, that the product has significant levels of saturated fat and total fat. Schwan's Consumer Brands, which makes the pie, did not respond to a message requesting for comment.