The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has come in for criticism from a government watchdog for failing to adequately crack down on false and misleading food labeling.
In a damning 81-page report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) accused the FDA of falling down in a number of key enforcement areas and said it had failed to “keep pace” with an expanding food industry.
The FDA was under-funded and wasteful of the scarce resources it did have which had led to a decline in the number of inspections, GAO said.
“As a result, FDA has little assurance that companies comply with food labeling laws and regulations for, among other things, preventing false or misleading labeling,” GAO stated.
Despite tens of thousands of foreign companies exporting foods into the US from more than 150 countries, only 96 inspections were performed in 2007 compared to 211 the year previous.
A secondary database the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) had failed to eliminate despite giving a 2004 commitment to do so, was deemed wasteful by the GAO.
“FDA has reported that limited resources and authorities challenge its efforts to carry out its food safety responsibilities – these challenges also impact efforts to oversee food labeling laws,” GAO said.
To make the FDA’s job easier, the GAO recommended a front-of-pack labeling scheme to better convey nutritional information to consumers similar to the Guideline Dietary Amount (GDA) scheme that had been voluntarily implemented by sections of the food industry in the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden.
It said the FDA should collaborate “with other federal agencies and stakeholders experienced in nutrition and health issues, to evaluate labeling approaches and options for developing a simplified, empirically valid system that conveys overall nutritional quality to mitigate labels that are misleading to consumers.”
Random samples of nutrition labels had not been carried out since 1999.
“The findings of this latest GAO investigation that the FDA seems incapable of preventing companies from providing false or misleading information to consumers are very troubling,” said Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of the FDA’s budget.
"These findings by the GAO seem to point to another example of how FDA mismanagement is failing consumers. As Congress moves next year toward reforming FDA's food safety responsibilities, this is another area that warrants close examination and potentially a major overhaul.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said the FDA’s policing activities were “astounding” for their lack of efficacy.
“Americans rely on food labels for accurate nutrition information to improve their diets and reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes,” said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. “These disturbing findings basically show that the FDA is looking the other way while consumers are being misled.”
CSPI senior staff attorney Ilene Ringel Heller added: “It’s astounding that FDA lacks reliable mechanisms to ensure that the Nutrition Facts label is accurate and that health-related claims are trustworthy. FDA needs to reorganize its labeling division and be given a new mandate from Congress to modernize food labels. Millions of Americans are counting on label information to protect their health.”
CSPI petitioned the FDA in 2006 to develop a universal front-of-label system about which the FDA held a public hearing in 2007. But no action has been taken as yet.