The Government Accountability Office says that consumers struggle to distinguish between different types of claims on food labels and recommends that companies be required to provide supporting evidence for their claims.
The Food and Drug Administration allows health claims with “significant scientific agreement” on food labels, but after a 2002 court decision, it started allowing claims with weaker support.
In lieu of strong scientific support of a claim, food manufacturers have begun using claims that demonstrate how a nutrient affects body structure or function—for example, that calcium helps build strong bones. Other advertisements are “qualified” health claims.
“Consumers cannot consistently distinguish between health claims, which have significant scientific agreements, and qualified health claims, which have lower levels of scientific evidence,” the GAO found.
The GAO found weaknesses in FDA oversight and use of data and resources. The FDA has not taken enforcement actions against companies for violations involving health claims.
Since 2007, federal oversight of food safety has been on GAO’s list of high-risk programs that need improvement. “FDA had little assurance that companies complied with food labeling laws and regulations for preventing false or misleading labeling,” the report said.
The FDA currently bears the burden of proving that a food claim is misleading and does not have the legal authority to compel a company to provide its support. The GAO is recommending that Congress grant the FDA authority to make food companies provide supporting evidence when making a health claim.
FAST FACT: European Union and Canadian food labeling officials consulted for the report said their governments did not allow the use of qualified health claims because of the potential for consumers to be misled.
Following are other new watchdog reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), various federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG), and other government entities.