Insights from a Food Lawyer: 5 Important Things to Know About Food Labeling Law

Insights from a Food Lawyer: 5 Important Things to Know About Food Labeling Law

We know starting a food business and working on your food packaging design is hard enough as it is. Throw in the added worry about making sure your labels and packaging design are in line with any required regulations, and many food startups are asking for a headache. We've asked our extended Design Womb team member and legal expert, Lauren Handel, who just launched her own firm, to share some helpful insight on what to consider while working on your packaging design and brand's launch. 

1. Who regulates food labels in the US?

At the federal government level, food labels are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) (for meat, poultry and processed egg products), the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) (for alcoholic beverages) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (for all other foods). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has jurisdiction over advertising, including websites and social media marketing. States also have authority to regulate food labels and marketing.

2. Can you be sued for your food label?

YES! In the last few years, the plaintiffs’ bar has played an increasing role in “regulation” of food labels by bringing hundreds of class action lawsuits against food companies allegedly for deceiving consumers with false or misleading food labels. Foods labeled as “natural” that contain genetically modified, synthetic, or highly-processed ingredients have been the primary target of such lawsuits to date. But the litigation has expanded to other types of allegedly false or misleading food labeling—such as labels using the term “evaporated cane juice” to describe a type of sugar ingredient, labeling claims about antioxidants and “superfood” ingredients, and claims about certain products being healthy or good for you when they contain lots of sugar or fat. Competitors also can sue for unfair competition based on a false or misleading food label.

3. What label claims may be made about health-related benefits of a food product?

It is flatly illegal to claim that a food product can help to treat, cure or mitigate any disease. Such claims may be made only for drugs, which must go through extensive review and approval by FDA before they may be sold. However, it is permissible to claim that a food product helps to support a normal, healthy bodily structure or function (such, as “supports a healthy immune system” or “builds strong bones”) provided that the manufacturer has sufficient scientific evidence to back up the claim.
FDA rules also set conditions for using the terms “healthy,” “health,” and other variants of those words, when used in connection with a claim about the nutrients or ingredients in the food. It is illegal to use those terms if the product contains too much fat, cholesterol or sodium, or if does not contain enough of at least one beneficial nutrient (vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber).

4. What claims may be made about the nutrition content of food?

FDA regulations govern claims characterizing the level of a nutrient in a food product—for example, “high fiber” or “low fat.” Manufacturers may use only certain terminology in making such claims—such as, “good source,” “high,” and “excellent source.” You may not say that a product is “packed with vitamin C,” for instance. FDA regulations also define how much of each “bad” nutrient is too much for a “low” claim and what minimum amounts of “good” nutrients are needed for a “good source” or “high” claim. In some cases, a manufacturer may make a nutrient content claim only if it also includes an additional disclosure.

5. Can you say things on your website that you cannot say on the product label?

In general, no. If the company’s web address is printed on the package label, FDA considers a website to be part of the product labeling and subject to the same rules as apply to the package label. Other kinds of marketing materials—such as product brochures and sell sheets—also can be considered part of the labeling. FDA also looks at websites (and, potentially, social media) for evidence that a company intends to market a food product as an unapproved drug. And, as mentioned above, the FTC also has jurisdiction over websites and social media. The bottom line is: be careful about claims you make anywhere you market your products.

Bio: Lauren Handel is the principal attorney of Handel Food Law LLC, which exclusively serves farming, food, and alcoholic beverage businesses. Lauren’s practice focuses on regulatory compliance and enforcement matters, commercial contracts, and intellectual property.

February 25, 2016  |  BY Nicole LaFave

Green Girl Bakeshop Packaging Design

The Dieline featured our packaging design work for Green Girl Bakeshop's dairy and gluten free ice cream pints and ice cream sandwiches today. You can see the full project on our site. 

February 25, 2016  |  BY Nicole LaFave

Beachy Cream Ice Cream Packaging

Beachy Cream Ice Cream Packaging Pints Pinup Girl Los Angeles California Organic Ice Cream

Thrilled to share The Dieline's feature of our packaging design work for the Beachy Cream ice cream pints today. You can see the full project on our site. 

February 17, 2016  |  BY Nicole LaFave

We have an intern! Meet Aleksa.

Aleksa Narbutaitis Design Womb Design Intern 2016

Aleksa Narbutaitis has joined Design Womb as an intern for the first half of 2016. We are thrilled to have her as part of the team and asked her to write a little entry to introduce herself. Enjoy!

I’m Aleksa. I’m a Cleveland, OH native, and I am always on the hunt for experiences that demand the best that my right and left brain have to offer. My life has been, and continues to be, a fascinating attempt at integrating these two poles of my mind. I have always had to find my way through the practical to get to, or rather, to make time for, the creative. But I’ve finally realized that I don’t want to have to make time for what I love to do. I want do it all at once.

I have a long history of creativity. I am forever in debt to my parents who taught me to be creative at a young age. I was constantly in art classes ranging from dance to drawing to ceramics to painting, you name it. Dance was where I really found my niche, and l stuck to it for quite some time.

I got my B.B.A. with a focus in Entrepreneurship as well as a minor in Dance from Loyola University Chicago. After graduation, I had a few years of small business management experience. It taught me a lot, but I wasn’t quite satisfied. Somewhere in between then and now I came to a point where I didn’t want to have to choose between my hobbies and talents and my career. So I’m not.

I am currently earning my graduate degree at Northwestern in Leadership for Creative Enterprises and I feel like I’m right where I need to be. I’m building my own brand that is me: business and creativity neatly packaged together all in one.

Nicole and Pendleton have graciously taken me in and are helping me explore my creative business side, something totally new and exciting for me. For the first time ever, I feel that I am very near figuring out what it is I want to be when I grow up. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that feeling before. It’s pretty great. I used to fill with worry when I thought about the future, but now I only feel excitement, and that is an extraordinary feeling for a student these days.

Bottom line, I am fascinated by the business world. My goal is to add some color to it with my personal creations. Be they physical, visual, emotional; I want to leave a mark. I am thrilled to have joined the Design Womb family and even more excited for what’s in store.

February 15, 2016  |  BY Nicole LaFave

Dipnotics Packaging Design

Dipnotics Dip Food Packaging Design Custom Sleeve Vegan Gluten Free Dairy Free Dips San Jose California

Our food packaging design for the Dipnotics vegan, dairy free, and gluten free dips is featured on The Dieline this week. Full project here on our site. Take a look.

February 10, 2016  |  BY Nicole LaFave

Branding & Packaging Design