It's the Food and Drug Administration's job to regulate food labels, but it turns out the agency turns a blind eye to some of the items for sale within its own cafeteria.
On a recent visit to the FDA's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, visited the cafeteria in the hopes of picking up a quick and healthy lunch. The first half of the food-selection process was easy. Tray in hand, Silverglade waited in line with the FDA employees to choose his entrÃƒÆ’Ã‚Æ’Ãƒ‚Ã‚©e -- and was quite impressed to see that each item had an easy-to-read nutrition label tacked next to its description.
But when he went to select his drink, his feel-good, happy thoughts quickly disappeared. The FDA's cafeteria was no longer the Elysian field of proper food labeling that he had thought it was. Disappointment set in as he spotted one deceptive label after another.
The "contraband" beverages that Silverglade spotted were: Purity Organic Functional Drinks' Pomegranate Blueberry, Crystal Light Immunity Berry Pomegranate, and SoBe Lifewater B-Energy Black Cherry Dragonfruit -- each with misleading claims on its packaging.
"This is the last place I'd expect to find these products," Silverglade said in a phone interview. "I was shocked to see them there." OK, so it's not like these products will bite you if try to pick them up, but Silverglade points out that their misleading labels are not fair and not healthy for consumers.
"Consumers who read these labels trust them to provide accurate information. When products are mislabeled, they are falsely believing that they are getting health benefits when they are not," he said.
These three beverages, although small in number and size, are only a fractional representation of a greater problem, he added. In March 2010, the FDA began a serious crackdown on mislabeled food products -- a move that was at first hailed as a victory by the CSPI, but soon led to disappointment.
"We certainly supported that effort. The Agency targeted particular companies that needed to change their labeling, but in the end, only 17 companies were written up. We would have preferred they take a broader industry-wide approach to this problem," Silverglade said.
Had the FDA taken a more active stance, perhaps by implementing a "systematic regulatory framework" for monitoring food product labels across the board, hiccups such as selling the items Silverglade spotted might never have happened.
So what's so bad about Silverglade's three beverages?
Purity Organic Functional Drinks Pomegranate Blueberry has a label that claims that the gingko biloba in the drink "will enhance your memory and keep you thinking straight."
"Government studies themselves have shown that ginkgo does not enhance memory or lower the incidence of Alzheimer's or dementia, and yet these mislabeled products are still showing up, in the cafeteria, no less," Silverglade said. The fact that the FDA sells a product thus labeled within its own agency is a bit embarrassing.
The Crystal Light Immunity Berry Pomegranate drink that Silverglade found in the cafeteria had expired. And not just by a few months. The bottle he bought was long past its "Best before 26 December 2007" expiration date.
In addition, Silverglade finds fault with use of the word "immunity" in the drink's name, which seems to intimate that the vitamins in the drink will help ward off colds or other sicknesses -- a claim that is entirely false, Silverglade said. He notes that CSPI urged the FDA to take enforcement action against this product back in 2008.
Lastly, the problems associated with the SoBe Lifewater B-Energy Black Cherry Dragonfruit drink (aside from the fact that there is no black cherry or dragon fruit juice in the drink) are the health claims made about B vitamins. The labels on the SoBe beverage claim that it will "help your body unlock the energy in foods"-- implying, Silverglade said, that it will make one feel more energetic because of the vitamin content.
"It plays off statements in nutrition textbooks that people are familiar with, that these vitamins will help improve your health. Yes, they will, but not in any form that your body can feel," Silverglade said.
Finding mislabeled food products such as these in the cafeteria of the FDA is by no means a sign that the Armageddon has come, but they can help to open the public's (and the FDA's) eye to the fact that although the number of mislabeled foods is decreasing, stronger efforts to regulate them could be made.
Obviously there are a number of mislabeled products out there -- so many that even the FDA has a hard time keeping track of them. The CSPI thinks a major overhaul is needed.