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Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus poses a question this morning:

How come a box of Special K Fruit & Yogurt that shows "a spoon being lifted from a bowl … the spoon holds crunchy-looking flakes accompanied by white clusters and little bits of red … prominently featured beside the bowl are a juicy-looking strawberry, raspberry and blackberry" actually has no berries in it?

"There are no strawberries," Lazarus writes.  "No raspberries. No blackberries. The only fruit listed is dried apples, which aren’t even depicted on the box."

The actual ingredients:  "“Whole grain wheat, rice, sugar, whole grain oats, wheat bran, contains 2% or less of corn syrup, salt, palm kernel oil, dried apples, brown sugar syrup, rice flour, nonfat milk, natural flavors, nonfat yogurt powder (cultured nonfat milk; heat-treated after culturing), mixed tocopherols for freshness, wheat, citric acid, molasses, vegetable juice for color, modified corn starch, lactic acid, honey, soy lecithin, barley malt extract, malt flavor, spice, BHT for freshness.” Plus vitamins and minerals.

Lazarus writes that "the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, enacted in 1967, prohibits 'consumer deception ... with respect to descriptions of ingredients'."  But, he concedes, "consumer deception" is a vague construct.   The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wouldn't comment on it.  And, he writes, "The Food and Drug Administration has its own rules for food and beverage packages, with highly specific regulations for how ingredients are presented."  An FDA spokesperson says that "a food that contains no berries can feature berries on the package if it contains berry flavoring."  (This particular cereal does contain "natural flavors," but does not specify berry flavoring.)

And, Lazarus writes, "No one at Kellogg responded to my repeated requests for comment. (Maybe the company is focusing instead on lawsuits alleging it has more dried apples than strawberries in its strawberry Pop-Tarts.)"

It ends up that at least one legislator is paying attention.  Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) has "introduced a bill that would, among other things, require that images of fruits and vegetables on packaging correspond with actual ingredients."

In a statement, Pallone says that "the Food Labeling Modernization Act will update our nation’s packaging requirements to provide clear nutritional information to consumers to help them make healthier and more informed purchasing decisions."

KC's View:

When we reported here on three different lawsuits targeting Pop-Tarts about a week ago, I said that I was sympathetic to these suits.  There are so many cases of products that are labeled as one thing, and when you look at the labels, you see that they have none of the so-called featured ingredient, or so little as to be irrelevant.

My go-to example tends to be frozen blueberry waffles, which in many cases contain absolutely no blueberries.

I got a little pushback on this, with one MNB reader arguing that no reasonable person should expect that "a Pop-Tart is filled with strawberries; fresh or otherwise."  Another wrote that "I think that there is a very different issue between an item with a listed 'flavor' vs an item that is listed as an ingredient."

At the risk of seeming like a purist, I think there is not unreasonable about thinking that a strawberry Pop-Tart should have at least some actual strawberries, or that a cereal on which the packaging shows fresh berries should actually have some fresh berries.

At one point did our standards for accuracy and truthfulness get so low that we are willing to accept such misdirection, especially in the food we eat?

Here's the deal.  The food industry can continue to perpetrate the dubious argument that these questions don't matter, which strikes me as being anti-consumer, or it can begin to take an ethically more defensible approach of saying, "We are on the shopper's side.  We are going to go out of our way to make sure that things are what we say they are, because that's the right thing to do."

I don't think this is being purist.  I just think it is trying to be as accurate as possible, which is in the best interests of consumers, which means that in the end it will be in the best interests of the industry.