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.”
To determine if consumer behavior toward food labels significantly changed since the early 90s, another misbranding study was recently completed using BiMiLeap (the app to Mind Genomics). Instead of asking the respondents one question at a time, BiMiLeap used a matrix of four characteristics with four elements describing each characteristic and using the ordinary least squares regression method for statistical analysis. For this study, the characteristics comprised of ingredients on the label, responsibility statement declaration, feelings evoked by label statements, and product price and value.
Results indicated that all respondents perceived that food label information was modestly honest (additive constant=37). Those who “most often” purchased food for the home had strong feelings that the “name or brand or vignette of the product is consistent with the manufacturer’s location declared in the label” (coefficient=67), strongly considering product price and value when they shopped (coefficient=49). Coefficients of 10 or higher projected strong feelings.
Obtained data were mathematically clustered according to the pattern of how strongly they liked (i.e., coefficients) specific elements, resulting in two consumer mindsets. Mindset 1 strongly expected that the “name or brand or vignette of the product is consistent with the manufacturer’s location declared on the package” (coefficient=24) and with “the product contained in the package” (coefficient=15). Mindset 2 reinforced those strong feelings of truthfulness of the product label, which, for them, pointed to “certain geographical locations” (coefficient=14) that state where “the product is made” (coefficient=10), that the “product is authentic” (coefficient=16), and may be of “good quality” (coefficient=24).
The statement that denoted truthful/not deceiving branding was “All contents were grown, raised, harvested in the geographical location stated on the label” (coefficient=7, response time=0.9 s), chosen by the respondents in one of the shortest response times. For this part of the study, transformation to binary value was made stricter such that coefficients of 6 or higher denoted strong feelings. The statements that denoted not truthful/deceiving branding were “Majority of contents were from a geographical location other than that stated on the label but cooked then packaged in the geographical location on the label” (coefficient=7, response time=1.3 s) and “Name or brand or vignette of the product and the manufacturer’s location do not make sense” (coefficient=6, response time=1.5 s). The respondents took half as much more time to decide if the claim was not truthful/deceiving than that denoting truthful/not deceiving.
Results of the early 90s study and the more recent study indicate that consumer behavior toward misbranding of food labels has not significantly changed. Consumers still expect product label information and vignettes to be truthful and not misleading. But misbranding issues continue to occur.
Some Cases of Misbranding
In November 1996, Michael Norton of Kona Kai Farms was indicted for money laundering and wire fraud when he imported coffee beans from Panama and Costa Rica through a front company, removed the beans from the original bags, and re-bagged the same beans into Kona Kai Farms bags labeled “Pure Kona Coffee.” It was expected that this scandal would change labeling rules, but it did not.
More recently in July 2018, the Chicago-based company Aloha Holdings LLC issued cease-and-desist letters to two businesses in Hawaii for using the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” that the company has trademarked. Aloha Holdings LLC issued an immediate stop to the use of these words when selling food, products, and services, and “all packaging, marketing materials, advertising, photographs, Internet usage.” Mainland U.S. businesses using those trademarked words were also issued letters resulting in a Washington restaurant dropping “Aloha” from its former name to become Fairhaven Poke and another in Alaska to rebrand as Lei’s Poke Stop.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.