Online food retailers do not regularly present nutrition information on their websites, and laws requiring them to do so are lagging behind the rules and regulations that brick-and-mortar retailers must follow, according to a new study conducted by the New York University School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Lead author Jennifer L. Pomeranz, MPH, assistant professor in the department of public health policy and management at New York University, fell upon the genesis of the paper by accident, and says that she was looking for food labels of products for a different study, and searched online retailers to find them. “I noticed that the labels I found were inconsistent across retailers and sometimes were mock-ups of the products rather than the real food packaging you’d find in the store,” she tells Food Quality & Safety.
The study examined whether 10 popular products across nine national online food retailers disclosed the information panel, which includes the nutrition facts label, ingredient list, common allergens, and the percentage of juice for fruit drinks. The investigators discovered that the required information was present, visible, and legible for only 36% of the products. What’s more, potential allergens were only disclosed on 11% of the items. Failure to disclose this information may present safety concerns for consumers who depend on the labeling, as in the case of allergens, sodium, or sugar, the researchers noted.
“Although, arguably, the FDA’s regulations for food labeling already apply to online food retailers, the FDA has not issued a clear statement confirming this to be the case,” Pomeranz says.
The team also conducted legal research using LexisNexis to analyze federal regulatory agencies’ authority. The researchers believe online food retailers should voluntarily disclose the full information panel conspicuously and legibly. “The FDA could issue guidance documents explaining that their labeling requirements apply in the online food retail environment,” Pomeranz says. “Congress could pass a law requiring the same. The USDA could also issue regulations requiring that online SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] retailers disclose the full information panel conspicuously and legibly. We hope our study will bring to light the issues consumers face when shopping online and urge the federal agencies to act to protect consumers and ensure an efficient and transparent marketplace.”