BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
Functional foods are getting a lot of attention these days. These can be everyday foods which claim to promote health, beyond just being nutritious, the way oats are said to be "heart-healthy." The FDA is paying close attention to these claims. The Federal Trade Commission is also watching advertising of these products.
Consumers naturally are drawn to foods with health benefits. They may even pay more for one food which is said to be healthier for them than another which is merely nutritious. So government and consumer watchdogs are concerned that functional food claims be factually true and not deceptive or misleading. If consumers aren't getting the claimed benefits, they're getting ripped off. And if consumers are mistakenly relying on functional foods to keep them healthy, and, say, skipping a flu shot, this could be bad news for them, and the rest of us too.
We've all heard about it: Food recalls, food scares and restaurant closings. You assume the food you find on store shelves is safe to eat. Is it safe? Is it really natural or organic as it claims?
Food Safety Labeling Study
Michigan State University studied consumer attitudes about food safety and labeling. The conclusion of the study was the majority of consumers search for labels indicating the products were inspected for safety. And about one-third are willing to pay more for that labeling.
The study also found consumers want to be reassured the food they buy has passed some kind of independent safety certification. About one-third of the consumers in the study said they would pay a premium for this assurance, even up to 30 percent more.
A researcher cautions that a higher price alone or an independent test doesn't necessarily mean the food is safe. A voluntary safety inspection by the food processor or seller are just as thorough as one by a government agency (the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)). Many of the consumers studied said they wish the food industry would spend more on certification programs than on government inspections.
The FDA is researching to provide "front of package" labeling. This will make finding ingredients easier. Reading the label may still be confusing.
What Does "Organic" Mean?
One of the most confusing labeling issues today is the word "organic" stuck on foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. These labels can take many forms, such as "Certified Organic" by a certain producers' association, or even by the state's department of agriculture. But what does it actually mean for you?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined rules for "organic" food and who can certify it. Generally speaking, "organic" means the foods were produced with more natural growing process. The Organic Foods Production Act (1990) created the National Organic Program to oversee and manage organic standards.
The National Organics Standards Board, defines organic as:
- Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony
- Organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole
- Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water
- Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people
The USDA and the FDA can punish or shut down food producers or sellers for false labeling, if products are labeled "organic" when they're known to have no difference from other products without those labels. Any person who knowingly labels items as organic when it is not can be fined (civil, not criminal) $11,000.
Many products charge more with an "organic" label because people are willing to pay for it. Stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's base most of their operations on organic foods.
If a label proclaims a food is organic, check the label to find out who designated it organic. Also, check what your state law requires for food labeling, including what makes a product "organic."
Questions for Your Attorney
- I think I got sick from old meat, but the expiration date hadn't passed yet. Can I sue the manufacturer?
- How can I take part in creating the official "organic" label standards?
- Is there any legal claim if a producer or retailer sells food as organic, but it really isn't? Would a consumer have to prove actual harm?