The FDA warning letter was bad enough, but what really galled David Glasser was being lumped in with certain companies and singled out from others.

First Juice’s fruit and vegetable children’s drinks are designed to minimize taste preference for sweetness, but the label callout earned the firm an FDA rebuke. Source: First Juice Inc.

The founder of First Juice Inc., Randolph, NJ, was one of 18 recipients of FDA citations concerning labeling infractions. Five involved products high in fat in packages proclaiming “trans-fat free” or “light,” five were for nutrient claims for products targeting children under the age of two, and the rest involved unapproved nutrient or unauthorized health claims, or both. The warnings were coupled with an open letter to industry from FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who is making food-label usefulness and scientific accuracy a priority.

Glasser’s transgression was an uncomfortable fit with the nutrient-claim warnings, some of which involved products listing a host of benefits, such as an immunity boost, cancer resistance and erectile-dysfunction cure, sometimes from a single product. First Juice’s labels include the text, “50% less sugar than the leading 100% …..juice.” While the claim is factual and sugar is not a nutrient, the FDA letter cited the prohibition against nutrient claims for products targeting small children.

“We didn’t appreciate being lumped in with products that twist the meaning of the regs and still claim they’re following them,” comments Glasser. More damaging is being singled out from two competitors who make similar claims and did not receive letters.

Front-of-package claims are emerging as a contentious issue. A self-regulation effort called the Smart Choice Program collapsed almost as soon as it debuted last year. Products that met the program’s dietary standards and did not exceed limits on fat, sodium and sugar could display the Smart Choice checkmark. Sugary cereals and fatty products such as mayonnaise bore the checkmark, prompting an investigation by Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general. Within 10 days of Blumenthal’s request for information from three major food company participants, Smart Choice was suspended.

Smart Choice prompted Commissioner Hamburg to promise an overhaul of label rules. She also expressed concern about “the number and variety of label claims that may not help consumers…and, indeed, may be false or misleading.”