Consumer groups say unproven health claims will mislead consumers

Two consumer groups sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week, charging that the agency broke the law when it decided to let food manufacturers tout unproven health claims on food labels. The suit, filed by Public Citizen and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says that current food labeling law requires health claims on food to be backed up by “significant scientific agreement.” An FDA initiative announced in July lowers that threshold, allowing weaker claims as long as they are qualified with disclaimers, according to CSPI.

CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade warns that the FDA’s new system will mislead consumers when sketchy health claims begin appearing on food labels.

“Food manufacturers could begin claiming that chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease or that ketchup may reduce the risk of cervical cancer,” Silverglade said. “If the FDA’s unlawful plan goes forward, the supermarket aisle will turn into a Tower of Babble, replete with government-authorized wishy-washy claims. Ultimately, consumers will distrust all health claims, even well-substantiated ones.”

The lawsuit also contends that the FDA is ignoring laws requiring the agency to respond to public comments and to justify its decisions regarding new health claims.

“This is another example of the FDA caving in to one of the powerful industries it regulates,” Silverglade said. “It amounts to the most serious roll-back in food labeling in the last 20 years. It’s doubtful that consumers will pay any attention to a vaguely written disclaimer when the claim itself is promising such great benefits.”

The food industry had been pressing the agency to allow health claims based on tentative scientific evidence for almost a decade. The FDA resisted the pressure until officials appointed by the Bush Administration ordered the agency to change course.

Note: The lawsuit is online at