In real life, alleged false claims often bring a fine or an order to stop food mislabeling. But the head of a group calling for tougher and more thorough enforcement of food-labeling fraud says it's no laughing matter when label liars can get off lightly.
"A company can fatten its profits considerably by cheating people," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "I can't tell you how many complaints we file with the FDA, and their perennial complaint is we don't have the staff to go after these people — and the FTC is the same."
Jacobson says it is not easy to spot label distortions.
"You have to be a lawyer or a scientist," Jacobson says. "You really have to read labels very closely, and the average person has a lot of other things on his or her mind."
He says misleading labels don't always involve blatant violations of fat or calorie levels, which can be strictly defined by the FDA. His organization's Web site gives examples of brand-name products it says claim to be "natural" — a term that is not regulated — but contain artificial ingredients, or imply one type of ingredient, but contain cheaper, often less-healthy substitutes.
For example, according to Jacobson, a popular type of peach oatmeal actually contains "dehydrated apple bits," not peaches, and a popular brand of "blueberry" waffles contain coloring, but no blueberries.
"There's an old country music song called, the big print giveth and the small print taketh away, and that's what a lot of these deceptions are," he says.
At least two doughnut vendors have paid with jail time for their deceptions.
Robert Ligon, 69, who ran a Paducah, Ky.-based company that used multiple names, pleaded guilty to mail fraud for allegedly shipping "low-fat" doughnuts to health food stores nationwide. He was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, starting in January of this year.
Fullerton, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who prosecuted the case, says Ligon committed "a betrayal of trust." Fullerton adds that Ligon bought conventional doughnuts and pastries from Cloverhill Pastry-Vend Inc., a Chicago baking company, for 25 to 33 cents, re-labeled them as a premium health food product, and sold them for $1 each.
"This is all fine, except that Ligon's labels — the labels that he had people put on them — were false," Fullerton says. "They dramatically understated the calories and the fat content of these doughnuts."
Rudolph Hejny, a Chicago case agent for the FDA, which has looked at Ligon's activities as far back as 1995, says an FDA raid on Ligon's storage facility netted 18,720 doughnuts and thousands of cinnamon rolls. One example, billed as a "carob coated" doughnut with three grams of fat and 135 calories, actually was a chocolate doughnut that contained 18 grams of fat and 530 calories.
In order to qualify as "low-fat" under federal guidelines, a product must have less than three grams of fat per serving. Doughnuts, which tend to be fried in fat, rarely qualify.
Ligon is not the only person in the Chicago area who ran a doughnut-dupe scheme.
In September 2000, Vernon L. Patterson, then 43, president of Genesis II Foods Inc. of Chicago, pleaded guilty to misbranding food products, mail fraud, and unlawful monetary transactions for repackaging and reselling irregular or day-old pastries purchased from Cloverhill.