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Let's See Those Food Grades

September 09, 2003

"Improves circulation in the legs" (butcher's broom root); "suitable natural alternative for all types of allergic and infectious disorders" (black seed plain); "supports the body's defense, circulatory and gastrointestinal system" (cat's claw extract); "treats alcoholism" (kudzu root); "supports joints" (yucca stalk).

Those are a few of the assertions that herbal and dietary supplement manufacturers have been making since Congress passed legislation in the '90s permitting scientifically unproven claims. For years the food industry has pressed the Food and Drug Administration for the right to make similar claims, and last week the agency began to allow that.

Previously, the FDA had enforced a strict standard about what health benefits could be claimed on food labels. Before oatmeal could boast heart-healthy labels, for instance, there had to be "significant scientific agreement" that oatmeal's fiber helped maintain low cholesterol levels.

Jonathan Emord, a food industry attorney, rightly argues that people shouldn't be denied "access to truthful information at the point of sale by an overzealous regulatory entity." Indeed, consumers have a right to know that "scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease." (That's the actual wording of one of the first claims -- for macadamias, cashews and a few other nuts -- that the FDA will permit.)

The new program, however, goes much further than simply allowing scientific information to be accurately presented. The FDA is grading each "qualified health claim" by food makers and packagers: A for scientifically proven claims; B where the science is good but not conclusive; C when there's limited science to support a claim; D when there's hardly any. Though the FDA uses this grading system internally, it unfortunately does not require placing this letter grade on the package for the consumer to see. FDA officials said that, instead, health claims on all foods would be accompanied by a short disclosure indicating the level of scientific support for the claim. But the FDA gives food makers great latitude on how to word the disclaimers.

If the A to D grading system is good enough for the FDA to use internally, it should be good enough for the agency to promote publicly. Certainly the grading system would more clearly inform consumers about the food they buy.

California regulators should keep an eye on the new program too. Federal law lets states use higher standards if they choose to do so. If the FDA implements the new program in a cavalier way, Sacramento should push for California's food labeling laws to be like its clean-air laws: tougher than the federal requirements.

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