The recent news that the FDA had sent 17 warning letters to food companies regarding deceptive label claims was met with an interesting bunch of reactions and they weren’t all what you might expect.
Reaction number one: “It’s about time!”
OK, no surprise there. I mean, really, who can’t get mad over deceptive labeling!
Reaction number two was a sense of growing unease about a not-altogether trustworthy agency having increasing power to enforce regulations which are based on highly questionable assumptions and influenced by a lot more than pure science and a concern for the safety of the American people.
Let me explain.
While there are certainly some very wonderful people in the FDA, by and large it is a bloated bureaucracy with a heavy bias towards the pharmaceutical industry (and against the supplement industry). It is heavily influenced- like everything in Washington- by lobbyists from both Big Pharma and Big Food. “I believe the FDA is unduly influenced by industry”, said David Graham, MD, the physician responsible for blowing the whistle on Vioxx when he testified about it to the Senate Finance Committee in 2004. “That undue influence is in part the result of industry money funding FDA operations.”
Dr. Graham, who was a Senior Official in the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety told PBS on Oct 21, 2005, “[The] FDA is there to serve…[the drug] industry. It is NOT there to serve the public”.
So when I hear about the FDA “cracking down” on stuff, I’m not immediately running to join the cheerleading contingent because I know there’s usually a little more to it than meets the eye. This is the same FDA that claimed vitamin products sold by the highly reputable Thorne Research were “unapproved drugs” and seized the company’s entire stock of products as well as 11,000 pieces of literature intended for physicians. This is the same FDA that raided Zerbo’s Health Food Store in Livonia, MI and cleaned the shelves of such “dangerous” substances as coenzyme Q10, selenium and carnitine and indited the 78 year old Zerbo on charges of “illegal drug trafficking”. (The list of similar FDA actions is endless– you can read a small sample here.) And that recently raided a private Amish farm in a move clearly designed to stop the owners from raising cows for the private consumption of raw milk.
And it is the same FDA that, according to Dr. Graham, “was willing to tolerate a 500% increased risk of heart attack with no demonstrable counterbalancing benefit for the drug (Vioxx) because it suits their client to allow the drug to be marketed to America.”
So while the headline about “misleading labels” brings a predictable chorus of “Yeah! Way to go!” the real truth about what’s happening is a lot murkier. For example, the warning letter to Beechnut DHA Plus line of baby food said that the company was not allowed to make the claim “No added refined sugar” nor “plus vitamin and minerals” (both of which are 100 percent true) because… and I am not making this up…. because “appropriate dietary levels have not been established for children in this age range”.
Let that sit for a minute.
In other words, the company can’t tell parents that there is no added sugar because it hasn’t been “established” to the FDA’s satisfaction what the appropriate dietary intake of sugar is for 2 year olds. And the same thing went for the “low sodium” claim and the “plus fiber” claim.
Are you kidding?
I wish I were.
By that same token, if fresh air and sunshine were food, we couldn’t put “lots of fresh air and sunshine” on the label because.. “appropriate levels of fresh air and sunshine” have not been established for kids.
Let me repeat: I am not making this up.
If I were a parent, and a company bothers to make a product that has no sugar in it, I’d like them to be able to tell me. I don’t need the government (heavily lobbied by the sugar industry) to tell me the “appropriate levels of sugar” for my 2 year old- I’ll make my own decision about whether I want to feed him sugar or not and if you’re not putting any in your product, I’d like you to be able to tell me, thank you very much. I’ll decide for myself whether that’s a good thing or not.
Now here’s where it gets a bit darker. There are products that have no trans-fats, but are not allowed to say so. Why, you ask? Because it doesn’t have a “disclosure statement to alert consumers that the product has significant levels of saturated fat and total fat”.
Sounds right on the surface of it, doesn’t it? But the fact is that there are a significant number of health professionals- myself included- who don’t buy the concept that all saturated fat is bad, and let me tell you, our ranks are growing. (A new study about to published in the American Journal of Clinical nutrition found no evidence that saturated fat is linked with heart disease.)
Yet according to the FDA, a food company can’t tell me that a product has no trans-fats (which I want to know!) unless it also “warns” me of the dangerous “total” fat that’s lurking inside.
This is exactly how the whole low-fat fiasco got started, and these rules perpetuate the idiocy that all fat is bad- i.e. the “total fat” in salmon is pretty high too, should they “warn” me of that before I buy it?
The issues involved here are multilayered and very complex. And way more than I would even attempt to take on here.
But the take-home point is that “crackdowns” from the FDA are not always a sign that things are moving in the right direction.
In fact- sadly for all of us- it is sometimes a sign that they are not.