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FTC targets Snap, Crackle and Pop for health claims on Rice Krispies

Package claims cereal “now helps support your child’s immunity.”


As the functional food and beverage market grows, the federal government has promised to crack down on producers’ labeling health claims.

Drug companies now consider food and beverage product offerings touting health claims as direct competition.  Some large global marketers are recognizing the fact that as the entire world focuses on a healthier lifestyle, sugar water with bubbles is not going to cut it.

While a pharmaceutical manufacturer would have to invest millions in clinical trials to claim a drug lowers cholesterol, a cereal, juice or vitamin processor just has to print it on the box. In one case Cheerios tried to make the claim it was “clinically proven to lower cholesterol.” The FDA got involved stating these label claims actually made the cereal a drug under federal law.

Last year the Federal Trade Commission found Kellogg made advertising claims that Frosted Mini-Wheats “improved kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.” In July of 2009 Kellogg was barred from making any health claims about improving cognitive functions. Now the FTC reports that Kellogg has agreed to follow new, broader restrictions.

In an article from the Wall Street Journal on line last week, “The expanded settlement prohibits the company from making claims about any health benefit of any food unless the claims are backed by scientific evidence and aren’t misleading.”

There was some back and forth between Kellogg, whose consent agreement does not admit wrongdoing, and says Kellogg stands behind their research. FTC officials report the offensive language has been removed (packaging fire drill!). Their rebuke was pretty strong, saying “Kellogg needs to stop and think twice” about ads (and packaging we would presume) and do right by children.

Here’s the issue; Kellogg, and many other food producers, do have research to back up their claims. But the results of this research on things like anti-oxidants lead to making claims that violate--or at least push the boundaries--on federal labeling and advertising laws.

You get the sense it is a bit of a fencing match between government and the private sector--in this case huge food processors. There are also a ton of vitamin and nutritional supplement manufacturers making similar claims.

One compromise amuses me. Large type on label claims to “boost immunity” but in tiny type the label reads: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.” What IS the intent of the cereal people? If they are investing in research to modify their offerings to include ingredients that can help a family stay healthy, they are going to have to step up to putting these products through a rigorous government testing protocol.

And the Obama administration has to meet half way, establishing testing protocol and finalizing label laws, currently under review. If the cereal makers intend to make false claims in order to cash in on the fitness craze, crackdowns will continue.

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