Label Lingo

Federal language cops return to the grocery store.


The Federal government will let Stouffer's claim that a frozen lasagna dinner is healthy. But Mott's can't say the same about apple juice. In an attempt to prevent misleading health claims by snack makers, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have redefined healthy and unleashed a full-fledged assault by the language police.

Beginning in November 1995, labeling regulations on fresh and processed meats, fruits, and vegetables will allow food manufacturers to describe their products as "healthy" only when each serving contains at least 10 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.

Food makers must also limit levels of sodium, fat, and cholesterol in their "healthy" offerings. Even foods sold under such brand names as Healthy Choice and Healthy Request must conform to the guidelines. Firms that violate these rules could have their products seized by the government and face administrative fines.

Tim Willard of the National Food Processors Association says the agencies are using federal power to enforce the gentleman's agreement that manufacturers won't make unsubstantiated health claims about snacks. He sees no evidence that snack makers are trying to fool anyone. Yet FDA Chief David Kessler told The Wall Street Journal that "products such as diet soda or regular soda–things that don't have anything in them–shouldn't be termed `healthy' just because they are low" in fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

John Cady, president of the NFPA, says that under the new guidelines, "such foods as green beans, raisins, and apple juice couldn't use the term healthy," even though health authorities recommend five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.