Food manufacturers need to be vert careful about the words they use on their products. Last week the New York Times ran a story on a class action lawsuit initiated by a pair of California consumers against General Mills, who are seeking to force the manufacturer to justify some of its marketing and labeling claims. The civil complaint, underwritten by consumer advocacy group Center For Science in the Public Interest, takes issue with General Mills’ repetitive use of the phrase “natural” when marketing a product with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and high maltose corn syrup.
On the company’s website, Nature Valley’s publicity stills are indeed full of affluent, healthy looking people hiking and mountain-biking through Thomas Cole paintings. I doubt hikers go to such extremes to eat a sugary bar of dried oatmeal. The disingenuous use of pastoral imagery in food marketing is a seemingly ancient and pervasive practice. So how much BS like this can a food producer get away with? It is actually a much finer line than one would think.
A vast amount of language is regulated in food marketing. Just to name a few examples, breed-specific claims regulate the meat industry, health claims such as “milk reduces the risk of osteoporosis” are regulated by the FDA, and the National Organic Program regulates the use of not just the organic seal of the USDA, but also of the use of the word “organic” standing alone. Almost any special distinguishing characteristics of a food label require some level of compliance review.
Third party lawsuits by public interest groups are not the only thing food producers need to worry about, either. Under the new Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA has the power to mandate product recalls for mislabeling and misbranding, not just for food safety concerns. Any institutional buyer, like a grocery chain or major distributor, will as a condition of purchase require the manufacturer to indemnify and hold it harmless in the event of a product recall for reason of mislabeling or misbranding.
There are thus a multitude of reasons why a label should be designed to be beyond reproach. Any errors, or even any unjustifiable “puffery” (term of art for slick marketing) can be a source of serious financial loss. The label is how producers interface with their buyers, and distinguishing themselves from competitors begins there. By all means, they are free to pile on the characteristics that make their product unique, they just need to be aware that there are limits to what terms can be used in product marketing – unanticipated compliance costs can come from a variety of directions.