‘Fresh’ isn’t always what you think it is (or what the FDA says it should be)

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September 29, 2011

Fresh. Such a seemingly simple word, yet the subject of conflict, confusion and misleading food labels for a very long time.

To me fresh is pretty darn simple. Where food is concerned, according to my dictionary, it means either “recently harvested” or “not having been preserved, aged or processed.” But enter the murky world of food labeling and it’s a different story.

Back in 1940, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued one of the agency’s first guidelines regarding the term, saying that “fresh” could not be used to describe products subject to heat or chemical processing. In 1964, the FDA specifically targeted orange juice, saying no orange juice could be labeled “fresh” if it was a concentrate at any point before sale.

Manufacturers, however, battled the “fresh” orange juice ruling with a lot of creative maneuvers. Some said fresh was part of their brand trade mark, others contended that their oranges were picked just days before hitting the supermarket (regardless of whether the juice was made from concentrate or not).

The “fresh” orange juice controversy got big time publicity in 1991 when the FDA seized 24,000 cartons of Procter and Gamble’s Citrus Hill Fresh Choice juice from a warehouse. The made-from-concentrate juice was certainly not the only one in the supermarket at the time using the word “fresh” against FDA guidelines, but as former FDA chief counsel Peter Barton Hutt said, “(they) just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  (During meetings with the FDA prior to the agency’s action, Procter and Gamble offered to add the words “means fresh taste” to the carton side, which the FDA said would only repeat the deceptive word “fresh” again.

Have things improved much since the orange juice “squeeze” twenty years ago?  Not according to the National Consumers League (NCL) – which took part in persuading the FDA at the time to take a “firm stand” on using the term “fresh” on a fruit or vegetable product that has been reconstituted or remade from concentrate.

100% vine ripened tomatoes? Not exactly. A label check show this sauce is made from tomato paste.

According to Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL, “the marketplace has become littered once again with false and misleading labels for products, for example, tomato products that are reconstituted from industrial tomato concentrate, pretending to be ‘made from fresh tomatoes,’ ‘packed in season,’ or ‘packed from vine-ripened tomatoes’.”

In April the NCL sent a letter  to the FDA about the false-fresh tomato labels, saying claims such as “uses only the finest tomatoes” are “false and misleading.”

And two of the products I found in the tomato section of the supermarket bears out their concern.

The first, Contadina® Tomato Sauce,  makes the claim that “Contadina picks the Freshest Tomatoes!” But an ingredient check shows the “Freshest Tomatoes!” are actually a tomato puree made from water and tomato paste.

The second, ShopRite brand Tomato Sauce, claims to be “Made with 100% vine-ripened tomatoes,” which turn out to be a tomato concentrate made from, once again, water and tomato paste.

Other tomato products the NCL list on its website include:

  • Del Monte Seafood Cocktail Sauce that claims “Made from California Vine-ripened Tomatoes” on the front of the package when, in fact, it is made from concentrate (tomato paste and added water).An image of a vine-ripened tomato appears directly below the claim.
  • Classico Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce that states on the label “In colorful Naples, pasta sauces are pure and simple, with ripe, red tomatoes…” when the product is actually made from concentrate. The claim has been deleted from new “value size” 44 oz jars of the sauce, but still appears on the label of the smaller, 24-oz. product.
  • Contadina Pizza Sauce and Contadina Puree that state “Contadina picks the Freshest Tomatoes,” and “Our vine-ripened Roma style tomatoes are grown to a rich red color before picking…” (a picture on the front label depicts vine-ripened tomatoes and a tomato field and the term “ROMA STYLE TOMATOES” appears on the front of the package below the Contadina brand name). The products, in fact, are made from concentrate.Other products with misleading labels identified by NCL are Francesco Rinaldi Original Traditional Pasta Sauce and Gia Russa Tomato Puree.

One would think food processors would be fresh out of such misleading claims of freshness by now. But, if nothing else, you simply have to give them credit for always managing to come up with a fresh one.

Which is why you have to read the ingredients, not just the claims.