Nutrition, labeling, anti-fraud efforts underfunded, says report

Ever wonder why Smucker’s can claim that a spread with 30 percent strawberries is “100% Fruit”? Mystified by oddball claims on functional foods? Curious why dangerous food allergens are often buried within hard-to-read ingredient lists? A new report says part of the problem is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Washington staff to crack down on such problems has been slashed almost in half.

The FDA even lacks adequate resources to guarantee the quality of infant formula or to protect the public from fraudulent food claims on web sites, according to the report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Beefing up the agency’s Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements (ONPLDS) could save thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing health-care costs and improving productivity.

“While FDA has devoted more money to dietary-supplement issues, its resources for key nutritional health, food labeling, and fraud programs have been cut by more than half over the last decade,” said CSPI senior attorney Ilene Ringel Heller, the author of the report. “Congress has given the agency more to do but less money to do it with.”

“Congress has found money for food industry priorities such as speeding the approval of new food additives,” CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade wrote in letters to leading members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. “It is now time to find money to ensure that the FDA’s nutritional health and consumer protection missions are adequately funded. Increasing FDA’s budget by only two percent and devoting that sum for work in these areas would reap economic rewards many times that amount.”

The CSPI report estimates how much money is needed to adequately fund key programs such as:

  • Stopping misleading ingredient claims on food labels;
  • Labeling the caffeine content of processed foods;
  • Finishing rules on health-related claims concerning trans fatty acids;
  • Making sure that information on the Nutrition Facts label is accurate;
  • Stopping fraudulent claims for so-called functional foods and medical foods;
  • Ensuring the quality of infant formulas and the safety of new ingredients;
  • Scrutinizing health-related claims on food-company Internet sites;
  • Urging industry to provide information on food labels on how to safely serve foods that pose choking hazards to young children;
  • Establishing rules for “Use by” dates on food labels to help ensure food safety;
  • Defining and policing the use of such terms on food labels as “Natural” and “GMO Free.”

“The numbers of FDA staff in Washington responsible for those areas has declined from 100 to about 45 full-time positions over the last nine years,” Silverglade said. “But this part of the FDA has had to take on major new responsibilities such as regulating functional foods containing herbal medicines, setting standards for the labeling of genetically engineered ingredients, and monitoring health claims on the Internet. FDA’s office responsible for these areas needs more money for field and headquarters staff, consumer research and education programs, and outside technical contractors.”

CSPI says ONPLDS should receive an increase of $30 million phased in over the next three fiscal years to add 300 employees to its headquarters and field staff.

“Consumers have a right to expect a safe and honestly labeled food supply,” said Silverglade. “Starving the FDA of resources in this area is penny-wise and pound foolish.”