As obesity threatens to become the nation's No. 1 root cause of preventable death, and diet crazes have Americans counting calories off of labels, are some food manufacturers misleading consumers in ways that may cause them to pack on extra pounds?
Even as U.S. health officials are asking restaurants and packagers to voluntarily clarify their food's fat, calorie and portion-size labels, they are accusing other companies of breaking existing rules.
For example, as officials laid out their new policy recently, a doughnut entrepreneur sat in jail over dubious "low-fat" labels. And in a case that reminded some of a plot from the sitcom Seinfeld, a New York frozen dessert chain was being accused of false claims about fat and calories.
"Whenever I pick up things that I'm not familiar with, or if I have questions about them, I look at the label," says Stuart Fullerton, a Chicago-based federal prosecutor who helped put the doughnut fraudster in jail. "That's why we have the label. It is near and dear to everyone's heart. We all do it, and we all rely on the truthfulness of what is on those labels."
Though critics say food labels and printed claims generally are truthful, the doughnut and frozen dessert accusations are among the latest in a long line of cases where certain food producers — including some of America's biggest food companies — have been accused of violating federal rules that define label or advertising claims such as "low calorie," "reduced fat," and "lean."
In the past decade, the Federal Trade Commission publicly challenged such familiar brands as Pizzeria Uno restaurants, Promise margarine, Mrs. Fields cookies, Eskimo Pie ice cream, and the advertising agencies for Dannon yogurt and Häagen Dazs frozen yogurt, for allegedly false claims on fat, calories, sugar or cholesterol in advertisements. The companies generally did not admit liability but agreed to change their ads.
Federal agencies aren't the only forum for complaints. Recently, a snack food company faced customer lawsuits after a published analysis claimed it misstated fat and calorie content.
In an ongoing case, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is negotiating with the owners of eight CremaLita frozen dessert stores after alleging "deceptive and misleading trade practices."
Despite CremaLita's advertising claims, the city said in December that federal Food and Drug Administration lab tests showed the desserts are not really ice cream, "not 'low calorie' or 'fat free,' and certain flavors of its product are not 'cholesterol free' or 'low fat.'"
New York's media outlets have cited similarities to a Seinfeld episode, in which characters gain weight after eating "fat free" frozen yogurt that gets exposed in a city crackdown.
CremaLita says the original charges were overstated.
"There were serious errors in the FDA methodology leading to a substantial overstatement of CremaLita's calorie count, fat content and other nutritional information on which the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs based its original charges — a statement we believe they would agree with," CremaLita President Allison Britz said in an e-mailed statement.
The New York agency says it also is investigating a second frozen dessert chain, though it has not yet made any formal accusations.