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Your Money : Some Foods Give New Label Law the Slip

CONSUMER AFFAIRS / DENISE GELLENE

May 06, 1994|DENISE GELLENE

Take a squeeze bottle of honey, a condiment jar and a jug of milk. What do you have? Three foods that are exempt from new federal food labeling regulations that take effect Sunday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is letting producers of a handful of foods off the hook because their packages are either too round or too small to accommodate the new nutrition labels.

The agency lacks authority to order food companies to alter the size of their containers. So if the label doesn't fit, well, the food package doesn't have to wear it.

Thousands of food packages, of course, will have the new labels telling consumers the amount of key nutrients in a single serving. But under the so-called Lifesaver rule, small food packages need supply only a phone number or address that consumers can use to get nutritional information.

If you think honey bottles, condiment jars and milk jugs are larger than Lifesavers candy rolls, you're missing the finer points of the new labeling regulations.

Take the squeeze bottle of honey from Western Commerce Corp., a City of Industry-based packer. The bear-shaped bottle is about as tall as two packs of Lifesavers.

The only flat surface on this bear--its stomach--is smaller than a roll of Lifesavers. In a letter to Kraft General Foods, which also has a bottle shaped like a bear, the FDA said such containers need provide only an address or telephone number.

Compared to honey bears, a milk jug would seem large enough to accommodate a food label. But another rule applies.

For reasons too complicated to explain here, about half of all one-gallon milk jugs have two indented circles that reduce the space available for labels. The rules allow these two-circle jugs to carry a special short-form nutrition label. Other milk jugs will be required to use the standard long-form label.

The dairy industry complained about having to use two different labels, so the FDA struck a compromise. The agency said milk processors can use the short-form on all jugs for two years, as long as they agree to modify the two-circle jugs during that time to make room for the standard label.

Now the FDA is concerned that it may have opened the door to cheating.

"We have received reports that some firms plan to rework their equipment . . . so it only produces containers that have two or more indentations," an FDA official said in a letter to the Washington-based International Dairy Foods Assn. "This would risk regulatory action."

Then there is the nearly spherical eight-ounce condiment jar from Asta Food Research of Newport Beach. Here's how the FDA described the situation: "We do not have information available to indicate that it is technologically feasible to provide a nutrition label on this particular jar."

Kathleen J. Nelson of Asta translates: "A label won't stick."

Solution: The FDA said companies using the Asta jar need provide only a phone number or address.

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Labels to go: The new labeling rules exempt most foods sold behind supermarket deli and bakery counters, but these regulations also have their quirks.

Baked goods fully prepared at a supermarket chain's central bakery and shipped to stores require the nutrition labels. But labels are not required on goods finished at individual stores, such as cakes baked at the main bakery and shipped to stores to be topped with icing.

Potato salad sold at the deli counter to a particular customer needs no nutritional label. But according to an FDA official, the same potato salad sold in prepackaged containers does require a label.

Jennine Sherry, a consultant to Ukrops Supermarkets in Richmond, Va., told food executives in Chicago recently that competitive pressures will force grocers to label even exempt products. "If consumers don't see a label, they'll wonder why you're not telling them what's in it," she said.

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Not sweating movie popcorn: A Gallup survey released recently by Quaker Oats has found that consumers ignore nutrition when it comes to snacking.

Eighty-three percent of those polled said they eat snacks that are not good for them because they taste good. Sixty-three percent said they are less concerned about nutrition when snacking than when eating a meal.

Quaker Oats' highly snackable but fat-laden granola cereal has been cited by some consumer organizations as a food to avoid.

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