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THE FDA IS SWINGING `A SUFFICIENTLY LARGE TWO-BY-FOUR'
Back in the 1980s, the Food & Drug Administration moved about as swiftly--and ferociously--as an arthritic turtle. Confident that the agency would respond with nothing more serious than some desultory letters, companies pushed the limits in their health claims for frozen dinners and pain relievers. "There was the perception that companies didn't have to worry about the agency taking action," says John C. Villforth, a former top FDA official.
But under new Commissioner David A. Kessler, the FDA is coming out of its shell--and it's got gloves on. Kessler, the director of medicine at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine before taking office on Feb. 25, is planning aggressive enforcement in a number of areas, and he has launched his drive with some high-profile assaults on food labeling. In April, he shocked the food industry by seizing shipments of Procter & Gamble Co.'s Citrus Hill Fresh Choice orange juice, so named even though it came from concentrate. Then, on May 14, Kessler ordered three companies--P&G, Great Foods of America, and CPC International--to wipe the "no cholesterol" labels off their vegetable oils or else face seizures of those products. P&G promptly volunteered to drop the "no cholesterol" claim from all of its food products (table). "Dr. Kessler is waving a sufficiently large two-by-four to get our attention," says Jeffrey I. Nedelman of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.
The May 14 offensive isn't the end of it. Next on the agency's hit list will be companies trumpeting the "no cholesterol" properties of such high-fat foods as potato chips, margarine, salad dressing, and peanut butter. The FDA contends that the claims shrewdly disguise the fat in the products, which could lead to heart ailments. The agency then plans to take action against cavalier use of such descriptions as "light" or "high fiber," as well as deceptive advertising in the drug industry.
TRUE OR FALSE? It's part of Kessler's plan to boost the credibility of his battered agency, whose ability to fulfill its mission was questioned by a blue-ribbon panel on May 15. The FDA's reputation and morale still haven't recovered from revelations in 1989 that officials were hoodwinked and bribed by unscrupulous generic-drug companies. "The agency cannot be viewed as a paper tiger," Kessler says. "I am convinced that the generic drug scandal happened for one simple reason: because people thought they could get away with it."
The "no cholesterol" crackdown was particularly bold because the offending companies could say they were not making false claims, even though their labels included a heart or other symbol suggesting the oils could help reduce the risk of heart disease. "Our statement that Mazola corn oil contains no cholesterol is true," notes CPC spokeswoman Gale Griffin. Under the law, however, the FDA can ban misleading as well as false claims. And the agency's own surveys show that consumers are being misled. "The public is confused," says Alan S. Levy, head of consumer research at the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. Agency studies show as many as 40% of shoppers think that foods labeled cholesterol-free also are low in fat. That's obviously not the case with 100% fat vegetable oil. "Consumers are buying products that they think will reduce the risk of heart disease, but which are, in fact, high in fat," says Sharon Lindan, associate director for legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group.
While the food companies under FDA attack are cooperating, the industry counters that the agency's crackdown could deprive shoppers of important information. "The 'no cholesterol' label means an awful lot to people," argues John Cady, head of the National Food Processors Assn. "And if they just turn the label around, they will see the total grams of fat."
That argument isn't likely to persuade the FDA to back off, however. In
November, Congress passed a sweeping new food labeling law that requires the FDA to issue a host of new regulations governing food claims. The agency has until mid-1993 to issue final regulations--and it still is hammering out early drafts. For the record, some companies welcome the mammoth rule-writing effort. "We're looking for direction," says a P&G spokeswoman.
FAST WORKER. But while the companies knew they would have to rein in their label claims eventually, a number are shocked and angered by the FDA crackdown. Some industry executives complain that the agency is lashing out before issuing clear guidelines on what's O. K. "The FDA is striking out to regain its needed credibility--at the expense of the industry," charges Cady. "I don't think that's the right way to do things."
In any case, it's Kessler's way. "His modus operandi is to move very, very
quickly," says FDA spokesman Jeffrey A. Nesbit. Kessler is also a shrewd politician. He knows it doesn't hurt to have the agency making news with its
tough new stance as he tries to convince a skeptical Congress that the
beleaguered FDA has changed its stripes and deserves more financial support. But to suggest that Kessler's zip, zap, kerplow! act is solely political would be 98% too cynical. He is intent on making it clear that the laissez-faire labeling days of the 1980s are, well, a thing of the 1980s.
Procter & Gamble is planning to remove the "no cholesterol" claim from
CRISCO OILS AND
(selected mixes and
DATA: PROCTER & GAMBLE CO.John Carey in Washington, with Zachary Schiller in Cleveland