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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

Brains of the Buyer online course for better food packaging design

Allison Ball, our food industry consultant, is launching an exciting new online course in February called

Food Industry Consultant

While we love to help you launch your food packaging projects, we also love to share exciting news about things that our team and extended family members are up to. Allison Ball, our food industry consultant, is launching an exciting new online course in February called "Brains of the Buyer." This course is for Producers of Good Food, and for the inaugural session, the Design Womb community will receive a generous discount of 30% off.

Food Industry Business – Start Early

"Brains of the Buyer" helps producers grow their food business, thoughtfully. Alli works with you to create a 1 page business plan to clarify what you're actually selling & who you're selling to, why your product is different, and who your competitors are. Together, you then move on to understanding the thought process of wholesale buyers: why they choose particular products to carry and why they pass on others; how they price them; the strategy behind re-ordering, merchandising, and marketing them; and how to convince those retail accounts to say "Yes!" to carrying your products.

Alli currently helps producers increase their wholesale presence through her one-on-one consulting, and is offering group work for the first time this winter. Prior to launching her consulting business, Alli was Head of Grocery & Store Manager at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, one of the nation's most influential specialty food markets, where she discovered, supported and promoted hundreds of small food businesses and thousands of retail products.

Online Course – Design Womb Discount

To sign up or learn more, follow this link and use promo code FOODFRIEND to save 30% off the inaugural course. Please note spots are limited, and registrations closes Friday, January 29th at Midnight, PST. Still have questions? Email allison@alliball.com.

January 22, 2016  |  BY Nicole LaFave

inker linker: find an awesome printer

Finally, finally, finally. Thank you Jessica Hische for putting this one together. I envy you and you inspire me with these side projects. As someone that works in print design, I can't begin to tell you how many times I wished there was a website like this. There are so many great resources out there and so many odd jobs that come in that you never know what kind of printer or supplier you are going to need. Inker linker connects the dots, lets you sort by rating, type of shop and by location in the near future.

August 29, 2011  |  BY Nicole LaFave

Branding & Packaging Design