In November 2018, two consumers took legal action against Pinnacle Foods Inc. of Washington state, the parent company of Tim’s Cascade Snacks that sells “Hawaiian Kettle Style Potato Chips,” for the use of the word “Hawaiian” that the company registered. The product labels featured tropical scenes unique to Hawaii, such as palm trees by the beach with hula dancers and Diamond Head. The plaintiffs considered the labels “false and deceptive advertising” and contended that the company practiced “fraudulent and unfair business practices.” The potato chips are made in Algona, Wash.
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The above are typical examples of cases that are not considered public health concerns by FDA. These practices do not align with consumer expectations of truthful and not misleading behavior and support consumer contention that the food industry is neither honest nor trustworthy.
Although the responsibility statement was treated as not directly affecting the health of the consumer, recent foodborne outbreaks have indicated otherwise. In spring 2018, foodborne illnesses occurred due to contaminated romaine lettuce. As of June 28, there were 210 illnesses and five deaths in 36 states. There were no associated food recalls issued, only public health alerts, because of difficulty in identifying the implicated product. Many retailers removed from sale all products that could have been potentially contaminated. It was a complex web of product growing, harvesting, packing, and distribution involving many entities and individuals resulting in issues with no clear solutions and explanations.
When another romaine lettuce outbreak occurred in the fall of 2018 causing 62 reported illnesses in 16 states, FDA decided that the origin of the romaine lettuce as based on the harvest region and the date of harvest should be declared on the label. Not knowing where and when the romaine lettuce was harvested affected public health and FDA proposed that this information be declared on the product label.
To date, the legally permissible responsibility statements are “Manufactured for/by __,” “Packed for/by __,” or “Distributed for/by __,” but many versions have appeared on packages, sometimes without the required information as in “Made in USA” or “Product of (country).” It is important that the name and address of the actual manufacturer, co-packer, or grower be mandated, as Dr. Bruhn and I recommended in our study. Thus, the resulting responsibility statement could be “Manufactured for __ by __,” “Packed for __ by __,” or “Distributed for __ by __,” or other formats with the required information.
In the case of romaine lettuce, it is recommended that FDA instruction be expanded to include all fresh produce and declare on the label the name and address of the actual co-packer or grower, identifying the growing region and harvest date, as in “Grown by __ for __ (date),” “Harvested by __ for __ (date),” or “Packed by __ for __ (date),” or other formats containing the required information. Details of where the information would be added are not proposed here.
Although the responsibility statement primarily advises the consumer where to find the manufacturer, distributor, or packer, its role may be expanded to include traceability that may impact public health. Misbranding is serious and the food industry should use truthful and accurate words, names, locations, and vignettes on labels to maintain credibility and consumer trust. Changes to the responsibility statement must occur and compliance must be strictly monitored just as for the other food label parts.
Dr. Saulo is a professor and extension specialist in food technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Reach her at email@example.com.