Recently, the murky world of nutrition labeling got even cloudier when federal officials stated their opposition to manufacturers' apparent misuse of reduced fat claims on food packaging.
But despite the highly publicized "crackdown," the announcement was expected to have minimal effect on the industry: Most products that carry terms such as "93 percent fat-free" are beyond the reach of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Throughout the 1980s, a decade of federal deregulation that extended even to food labels, manufacturers began using exaggerated health claims on product packaging. One federal official called them "marketing gimmicks" and "egregious statements."
In recent weeks, David A. Kessler, the FDA commissioner, has taken to task companies that stated their highly processed products were "fresh," as well as other companies that touted foods (such as cooking oils) that have never contained cholesterol as being "cholesterol-free." More than two dozen companies voluntarily agreed to change their product labels after the FDA pressed the issue.
Now Mr. Kessler has announced the latest in a series of actions aimed at correcting "partial truths and misleading statements on the American food label." He said: "The nation's supermarkets contain many foods represented as say, 93 percent fat free, when these foods are, in fact, not low-fat products. We believe that this kind of assertion confuses and misleads consumers. Foods that derive a high percentage of their calories from fat should not be making low-fat claims."
Yet, many of the products claiming to have low percentages of fat are out of the FDA's control. An agency spokesman conceded that the FDA had no idea how many food products might be affected by its latest action against claims of fat-free percentages.
For example, while the FDA does regulate dairy products, it does not have jurisdiction over processed meats and poultry, a category that has most visibly promoted statements such as "93 percent fat free."
Meat and poultry are, instead, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. The USDA is also undertaking a review of nutritional labeling on meat products, but there are no assurances the agency will follow FDA's lead on the fat-free percentages issue.
"I don't know for a fact that every one [of FDA's labeling decisions] will be accepted by us," said Jim Greene, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in Washington. "We will parallel FDA's nutrition labeling rules, but there may be differences because of the nature of the products we regulate."
Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, the FDA is required by Congress to issue comprehensive revisions of nutrition labels by November. When Mr. Kessler took over the FDA in January, the agency began singling out a few labeling phrases for attack, leading to industry criticism that it was proceeding with a "hunt-and-peck" approach.
"Our biggest bone of contention is the process that FDA and Kessler are taking because it is the wrong way to solve the problem," said Robbie Curry, communications director for the Grocery Manufacturers of America in Washington. "FDA should concentrate on getting regulations on the book for the entire industry rather than taking a look at 17,000 labels one at a time."
Jeff Nesbit, an FDA spokesman, said that there is a reason for the agency's recent actions.
"More than 20 firms have agreed to take 'fresh,' 'cholesterol-free' or 'fat-free' percentages off their labels. That is not a hunt-and-peck approach," Mr. Nesbit said. "We want to make sure there is a level playing field [upon which all food companies can compete]."
The more sweeping labeling revisions will come by the November deadline, he said.
"What we are trying to accomplish is twofold. First we are getting some of the more misleading statements off food labels and that will continue to happen. Second, we are developing guidelines for what . . . will be acceptable [on labels] in the future," he said.
The first company to announce that it would drop fat reduction percentages, independent of FDA's action, was Kraft-General Foods. "We are concerned that these claims didn't communicate effectively. They are not inherently deceptive but the potential for confusion exists," said Michael Mudd, vice president for the Glenview, Ill.-based company.
It should be noted that Kraft-General Foods has an extensive line of 100 percent fat-free foods that would likely gain competitive advantage if fewer manufacturers could claim to offer foods with high fat-free percentages.
Mr. Mudd denies that promoting fat-free food was the motive for dropping the percentage claim. "If the fat-free foods do benefit from the action," he said, "it is because they deserve to on their own merits."
Fat reduction claims, whether truthful or exaggerated, find a receptive audience. Medical research indicates that diets high in fat are linked with increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers. And a recent public opinion survey conducted for the Food Marketing Institute found that 62 percent of those queried listed fats as a "serious hazard" in foods. Another 35 percent said that the compounds were "something of a hazard." Only 3 percent of the American public said that it did not consider fat a health threat.