Labels of food products sold in most parts of the world carry essential product information. In the U.S., a legal label for FDA-regulated foods consists of the principal display panel (PDP) and the information panel. The PDP is the front label panel read by the consumer and it bears the statement of identity or the common or usual name of the food, and the net weight.
The information panel is the panel immediately to the right of the PDP, and in 1990 included only the ingredient statement, Nutrition Facts panel, and the responsibility statement. The ingredient statement lists the ingredients used in product manufacturing in their decreasing order of predominance by weight. Nutrition Facts labels are required on most foods to declare the mandatory nutritional components unless additional nutrients are claimed. The responsibility statement gives the name of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor, and its street address or phone number. There are other requirements for food labeling compliance in the U.S. that will not be covered here.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 mandated a standardized Nutrition Facts panel and defined terminologies for certain health claims or nutrient content claims. Further modifications to the food label occurred thereafter, including the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 that required the declaration of one or more of the eight most common allergens if present.
In 2016, the first major revision of the Nutrition Facts label was promulgated to improve its ease of use in helping consumers make food choices based on new scientific information. All these label changes left the responsibility statement intact because FDA did not consider it as directly affecting the health of the consumer or the consumer’s understanding of the nutritional information.
Responsibility Statement and Misbranding
The food label can help the consumer make informed decisions about the relationship of food to their health and wellness. This function is evident in the name of the food, how much food is in the package, the ingredients used to manufacture the food, the allergen warning, and the Nutrition Facts panel, but is not intuitively obtained from the responsibility statement, whose purpose is to allow the consumer to find and contact the responsible manufacturer, distributor, or packer.
Food labels are sometimes also used as a marketing tool. It is not uncommon to see a food label with a vignette of a place or a geographical location included in the product name, such as Hawaii pineapple, Indian curry, or French Champagne. These labels market the romance and mystique from the geographical location associated with these specialty foods and often carry higher prices than their non-specialty counterparts.
Unfortunately, some manufacturers indiscriminately and falsely associate product names with geographical locations and vignettes. This practice of incorporating a geographical location in the product name that is different from that where the food originated (as declared in the responsibility statement) is a form of misbranding and is in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which mandates that food labels must be truthful and not misleading.
Consumer Attitudes Toward Misbranded Foods
In the early 1990s, as requested by the Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association, Christine Bruhn, PhD, retired, director, Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis, and I investigated how consumers behaved toward different examples of misbranded foods. Although FDA does not routinely enforce misbranding because food origin does not affect public health, respondents (approximately 69 percent) considered misbranding to be an “important issue.”
We described fictitious products, such as “Hawaii potato chips” and “Hawaiian Foods Fruit Cocktail.” Seventy-three percent of the respondents expected a relationship between the product name and the declared geographical place. Almost 80 percent considered it “inappropriate” when the product was not manufactured in Hawaii and the major ingredients were not from Hawaii, or the product was repackaged in Hawaii. When we stated that the fictitious manufacturer, “Hawaiian Foods,” was not located in Hawaii and the package vignette portrayed an iconic beach scene of Diamond Head and palm trees, almost 75 percent of the respondents considered the label “inappropriate.” Almost 80 percent of the respondents indicated that an “inappropriate” label was “misleading,” “deceptive,” “borders on fraud,” “lacks truth in advertising,” and is a “lie.” Sadly, almost half of the respondents “expected such practices from the manufacturer.”