By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
Last week, the National Consumers League sent a letter to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg strongly encouraging the agency to enforce and expand its mandate to prevent the deceptive labeling of tomato products. A plethora of products currently on the market carry false and misleading labels implying that they have been made or packed directly from fresh tomatoes when they are actually created from concentrate. These labeling claims include statements such as “packed full of premium vine-ripened tomatoes,” “made from California vine-ripened tomatoes,” “packed from 100 percent California tomatoes,” and “picks the freshest tomatoes,” and often share the label with pictures of whole, vine-ripened tomatoes. Such claims are misleading to consumers and should be better monitored by the FDA.
Nineteen years ago, NCL urged the FDA to define the term “fresh”; to issue guidance differentiating products made directly from fresh ingredients from those created from concentrate; and to take enforcement action against such products bearing false or misleading labels, steps that the agency consequently took. While these measures reined in misleading tomato product claims at the time, the agency has not consistently enforced them, and, in recent years, tomato products bearing misleading labeling have proliferated. Furthermore, in order to circumvent the FDA guidance, many marketers are using terms such as “vine-ripened” that convey the same meaning as “fresh” to consumers, and that do not in any way suggest that products labeled as such are made from a thick industrial tomato concentrate, weeks or months after the concentrate is manufactured.
In its December 10 letter to Commissioner Hamburg, the League suggested a series of steps for FDA to take, in order to stem the tide of false and misleading labeling of tomato products. First, in order to send a clear message to industry, the agency should take enforcement action against remanufactured tomato products currently on the market that bear false or misleading claims. Second, FDA should issue a new, updated guidance to industry that expands the agency’s enforcement policy to include claims that imply – in addition to those that specifically state – that a reconstituted tomato product was packed or made from fresh tomatoes. Third, the agency should require fruit and vegetable products made from concentrate to be labeled prominently as such on the principal display panel of a package, as is currently required for juices; this measure will ensure consistency in labeling requirements among this group of products.
Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL, stated, “In order for food labeling to be effective, it is imperative not only that the label not include false or misleading claims, but that it quickly and easily convey accurate and important information to consumers. The fact that a tomato product is remanufactured with added tap water from concentrate, rather than packed from the fresh tomatoes in a single, continuous process, is material information. It is our hope that the FDA will take the necessary enforcement action, as well as issue new guidance to industry, in order to bring transparency to the labeling of all fruit and vegetable products from concentrate and prevent consumers from being misled.”
The League’s efforts to bring transparency to the labeling of reconstituted tomato products continue its long history of demanding truth in advertising.