Peter’s Memo: Pushing for honest, useful food labels

Is it too much to ask that food labels not mislead us? At times, it seems so.

That’s why the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, keeps pushing for honest, useful labels. And we’ve won some notable victories. A few recent examples:

  • Nitrates and nitrites. In 2019, CSPI and Consumer Reportspetitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban misleading “no nitrates or nitrites added” claims on processed meats (like ham, bacon, and hot dogs) when the source of those probable carcinogens is celery powder or other “natural” ingredients.

This past December, the USDA agreed, and the agency started the process of changing its labeling rules to prohibit “no nitrates or nitrites” claims whenever those ingredients are present—regardless of the source.

uncured bacon
“NO NITRATES OR NITRITES ADDEDEXCEPT FOR THOSE NATURALLY OCCURRING IN SEASONING,” says the label. Getting probable carcinogens from seasonings like cultured celery juice powder doesn’t make them safe.
Lindsay Moyer/CSPI.
  • Sesame. In 2014, CSPI urged the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling for sesame, the ninth most common food allergen. The law requires companies to declare the presence of the “Big Eight” allergens—milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans—within or next to the ingredients list (with a statement like “contains milk”). But sesame can be hidden in the ingredients as “tahini” or as “spice” or “natural flavor.”

In November, the FDA recommended that companies voluntarily disclose the presence of sesame. That’s not good enough. CSPI will continue to push the feds for mandatory sesame labeling, and we’re asking Congress to designate sesame as a major allergen.

  • Potassium salt. Switching from sodium chloride (ordinary salt) to potassium chloride would help companies cut the sodium in their foods. And that could reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

But some companies have hesitated to make the change because “potassium chloride” sounds like an unfamiliar chemical, and some consumers might balk when they see it on a label. In 2019, CSPI urged the FDA to allow companies to simply call potassium chloride “potassium salt.” In December, the agency agreed.

  • Cheese. For years, large cheese manufacturers have pushed Congress to pass the CURD Act, which would protect them from lawsuits by consumers who say they were misled by “natural” claims on cheeses that are actually made with artificial ingredients.

In December, dairy lobbyists nearly succeeded in slipping the cheesy bill into pandemic-relief legislation. But when CSPI and other nonprofits raised the alarm, the CURD Act was blocked.

Companies will continue to manipulate food labels in ways that help them make a sale. And we will continue to fight for labels that are informative...and honest.

Peter G. Lurie, MD, MPH
President, Center for Science in the Public Interest