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Tufts study’s findings motivates congressman to take action

Published: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 10:03

Congressman Hinchey

Courtesy the Office of Congressman Hinchey

Congressman Hinchey is seeking more stringent regulations from the FDA on published nutritional information.

U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D−NY) is pushing for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory changes based on the results of a recent study by Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy researchers that showed that the food industry tends to misrepresent calorie counts on nutrition labels.

Hinchey wrote in a Feb. 24 letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg that the FDA should reexamine its policies to ensure more stringent monitoring of the food labels that manufacturers publicize.

The study released on Jan. 6 measured the actual calorie content of samples of 39 commercially prepared dishes, including packaged frozen foods and foods from national sit−down chains and fast food restaurants. Researchers then compared this information with the reported calorie counts.

According to Lorien E. Urban, a Ph.D. candidate at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the primary author of the study, the selection of nutrition labels her team scrutinized underreported caloric counts by an average of 18 percent.

Urban explained that current FDA policy allows for packaged food products to contain 20 percent more calories than listed. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but it can add up," Urban said.

This permissible margin of error is of particular concern for Hinchey, especially since this limit appears to be frequently exceeded, according to Jeff Lieberson, Hinchey's chief of staff.

"The American people have no idea what they're consuming," Lieberson told the Daily. "There has not been any real enforcement of that allotment for margin of error. The congressman is calling for stronger oversight, as the oversight has been lax on the FDA's part."

Lieberson noted that the food industry has the capacity to ensure that its nutritional labels are more accurate.

"Technology has advanced so much that food agencies should be able to do a much better job measuring nutritional content than they are," he said.

Hinchey further believes that the FDA should require food companies to print information about the acceptable margin of error for nutritional content information clearly on the product label so that consumers are aware of potential discrepancies.

"People are being misled about what they are eating," Lieberson said. "For a country that struggles with health and weight issues, this is a problem. If those labels are not accurate, then that's something we need to change."

Meanwhile, there are no FDA regulations concerning the accuracy of nutritional information published by restaurants, which were responsible for some of the largest discrepancies in reporting, with errors of as much as 200 percent on some dishes.

"Americans are eating a third of their meals out," Urban said. "But currently restaurant foods do not fall under [FDA] regulation."

Lieberson agreed that the FDA should extend to restaurants its regulations on the margin of error allowed for published nutritional information.

An FDA spokesperson, Ira Allen, explained that the agency has procedures in place to take action against food manufacturers that produce misleading labels.

"If a product is deemed misbranded … we can take an advisory action, letting the firm know the product does not meet the regulatory requirements," Allen said in an e−mail to the Daily. "The next step would be a warning letter … ultimately we can also take action through the court system."

Allen added that the FDA at the end of February issued warning letters to several prominent national companies. According to an official March 3 press release from the FDA, 17 food manufacturers have been instructed to amend their imprecise labels.

Hinchey, however, said that the action taken by the FDA has been minimal considering the ubiquity of misrepresentation by the commercial food industry

The FDA press release also indicated that the FDA commissioner sent an open letter to the entire food industry that emphasized the agency's dedication to ensuring that members of the public receive accurate information regarding the food they purchase. Allen reiterated this sentiment.

"The accuracy of nutritional labels is absolutely one of the major concerns of the Commissioner and food safety is a top priority of the Obama administration," Allen said. "The agency looks forward to working with industry and consumer groups to make sure consumers know what they are eating and drinking."

The FDA plans to soon address the misbranding of calorie content on labels.

Urban added that researchers are currently in the process of conducting a second, more comprehensive study of calorie contents in restaurants. The study will test over 300 restaurant foods in the hopes that the outcomes of the research might prompt the FDA to expand its regulation of commercial eateries.

Hinchey and his office are optimistic about the FDA's response to his letter, especially considering the Obama administration's focus on improving health and nutrition in the country, according to Lieberson.

He added that Hinchey expects that the FDA will give more details about the agency's future plans.

"The congressman spoke to the FDA commissioner last week," Lieberson said. "Over the next few weeks, we'll get a sense of how the FDA would like to handle the issue. At that point, [Hinchey] will seek to work more collaboratively with the FDA and other members of government."

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