FDA requirements vague when it comes to ‘what’s in a name’

Posted by
April 26, 2012

You'll find the honey in this cereal at the end of the ingredient list after cinnamon.

FoodIdentityTheft.com – April 26, 2012 – How much of something needs to be in a product before it can be used in the name?

Beekeeper Jim Fisher is one individual who has attempted to  answer that question himself – at least where honey is concerned.  Fisher believes that if you use that golden marketing word on a food package, there should be honey in the product – and not as the last ingredient, either.

The scores of products out there with “honey” in their names, but which actually contain little or none of the natural sweetener, are what prompted Fisher to create his “Wall of Shame” web site several years ago. Some foods – those containing no honey at all – ended up on the “worst” list (such as KC Masterpiece Honey Dijon Marinade,because, as Fisher puts it, “’high fructose corn syrup dijon’ just doesn’t somehow have the same ring to it”), while the  few that have significant amounts of honey are honored in his “Hall of Fame.”

But what are the rules about naming foods, and just how much honey or butter or fruit does it take to  make those words legitimate in a product name? Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food packaging and claims, it seemed to be the most likely place to call for an answer.

But all the FDA would provide me with was a link to its “Food Labeling Guide” an 88- page document complete with answers to all your food labeling questions. But not that one. An hour-long search at the FDA site also turned up nothing.

So I decided the next step would be to call the FDA, tell them I was going to be making Linda’s honey butter cookies, and asking if I had to include any honey and butter in the recipe. Going back to Google to find a phone number, I noticed a search result for Food Label Consultants, a company in Mount Morris, New York that specializes in keeping its clients in compliance with the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, a voluminous list of rules that also establishes what you can and can’t say about food on a package.

What the FDA couldn’t seem to tell me, Food Label consultants President Steve Zoller could. In fact, Zoller, described as a “food industry veteran with over three decades of experience,” knew the answer right away.“If you use the word ‘honey’ it darn well better be in the food,” was how he put it.

But how much is required in a product before you can paste “honey” in big letters over the front of the box? “Not much — that’s not qualified anywhere,” Zoller replied, “There’s nothing in the Code that tells you that.”

That explains my Shop Rite brand Honey Oat Clusters, with the “honey” at the very end of the ingredient list, right after cinnamon. The cereal also comes in a box depicting a big honey jar and dipper, despite the fact that it actually contains more high fructose corn syrup than honey.

Some food products, Zoller said, have very specific legal descriptions of what they should be called, known as the “standard of identity.”

“Breads, enriched breads, milk, cheese, cocoa products, and a host of other things,” he noted, are “listed in the Code that require a minimum number of ingredients to be called by that name. But not all foods have this standard, which mostly applies to “basic’ things,” he told me.

And what about all those seemingly honey-less products on beekeeper Fisher’s “worst” list that contain not a drop of honey? According to Zoller, such deception would be in violation of the law, unless the product involved comes with a qualifying statement saying “artificially flavored” in type half the size of the word ‘honey.’ In that case “it wouldn’t have to contain any honey at all.”

But “in some areas the code is just not clear,”  Zoller added. “The code and the FDA are continually playing catch up with the industry.”