March 4, 2010 -- The countdown is on for 17 food manufacturers to correct labels on popular food products that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says misrepresents the products' health benefits -- or else.
The FDA said Wednesday that its commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, had sent letters to each company in question Feb. 22, along with an open letter to the food manufacturing industry demanding they take action against "false or misleading" labels.
Among the complaints is that "misleading 'healthy' claims continue to appear on foods that do not meet the long- and well-established definition for use of that term," Hamburg said in the letter.
If companies such as Nestle and Beech-Nut do not comply, the FDA warned, the products could be removed from the shelves.
"FDA is notifying a number of manufacturers that their labels are in violation of the law and subject to legal proceedings to remove misbranded products from the marketplace," Hamburg said in the letter, which is posted on the FDA Web site.
Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told "Good Morning America, "We hope this is the start of a battle that will lead to a war that will end deceptive food labeling."
Hamburg, citing the desire of industry leaders to provide safe, healthy products, said in the letter that the FDA's measure is an attempt to clarify "what is expected of them."
'Warning Letter' to Companies
The companies' letters, ominously titled "Warning Letter," as FDA notices have been in the past, are directed to individuals within the companies and address specific products and labels.
"Violations included a wide variety of unauthorized health claims and nutrient content claims," according to the FDA's Web site. "Products also were identified that made nutrient content claims about one nutrient, such as trans fats, but failed to identify other nutrients, such as saturated fat, which were present in the products at very high levels."
One tactic companies use to avoid accusations of mislabeling, Silverglade said, is using broad, sometimes confusing terms.
"The companies try to get around the rules by using vague terminology such as 'helps support your immune system' or 'heart healthy.' These claims are not reviewed by the FDA and are confusing customers," he said.
Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream Inc., one of the companies cited by the FDA, said in a statement that it stands behind its nutritional quality.
"Dreyer's intends to fully cooperate with the FDA to bring this matter to a conclusion. As a matter of policy, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream does not comment on pending regulatory inquiries, and at this point we cannot make further comments," the statement read.
Nestle, another company on the list, told Business Week magazine that it "intends to fully cooperate with the FDA to bring this matter to a conclusion."
Beech-Nut said it is reviewing the FDA letter and Pompeian Inc., another company on the list, said labels for its imported extra light olive oil will be revised, according to the Washington Post.