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What Your Food Must Legally Tell You

Person in the kitchen by the fridge, looking at the expiration date of a product she took from her fridge.
By FindLaw Staff | Last updated on

Food labels have made huge improvements in honesty, clarity, and standardized information over the years. In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service required brands to provide more information on their labels.

But what do they need to tell you now? And what can marketing and branding still hide?

The Anatomy of a Food Label

The FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services enforce federal laws on food labeling. Aside from the typical nutrition label and ingredients list, products must show:

  • Any nutrient claims (example: "20% vitamin C")
  • Nutrients to back up any health claims (example: “good source of vitamin C")
  • Claims of “light" or “lite" need to prove this claim on the label
  • Any spices, added flavors, or added colors
  • Any chemical preservatives
  • Whether it contains raw fruit, vegetables, or meat

Despite the extensive laws on labeling, food companies still spend big bucks to trick consumers with (legal) false claims.

Common false claims to look out for include:

  • Promoting whole grains and health when the item is full of sugar
  • Unrealistic serving sizes to make the calories look low (who drinks just half a can of soda?)
  • Claiming “multigrain" when the ingredients are highly processed or refined grains
  • Claiming “natural" when the finished product is full of chemicals and highly processed (products can use the claim “natural" if they started with a natural source at one point, such as an apple)
  • “No added sugar" can still mean the item is full of natural sugars (here's looking at you, fruit snacks)
  • Using other names or chemical names for sugar (dextran, malt powder, etc.)

Buying Local Products From Farmers Markets

Since homemade items are not being sold to the masses, they are not required to have nutrition labels. Consumers purchase these products at their own risk knowing they have not been officially evaluated for ingredients, production processes, safety, or nutrition facts.

If you happen to buy a product that makes you severely sick, you could file a consumer protection or personal injury claim again the seller.

Foodborne illness and bacteria outbreaks most commonly come from certain types of foods at farmers markets, including:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meats

Plain old fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed items tend to come from farms. It is up to each farm to carry product liability insurance.

If a product you purchase harms you or your family, you can file a lawsuit – but speak to an attorney first to determine if the money you would recover is worth it. For example, if you served salads to a large number of people that makes everyone sick (like at a wedding), it could be worth the time and money a case requires.

Buying From a Restaurant

Restaurants with more than 20 locations (chain restaurants) must legally show calorie information for each item or meal. This can be shown on:

  • Online or printed menus
  • Menu boards
  • Cards or labels in food showcases

Mom-and-pop restaurants and local joints, however, do not have to reveal the secrets of just how much butter goes into their delicious dishes.

COVID Changes to Food Labels

To help with supply chain disruptions and keep delivery times as low as possible, the FDA has allowed flexibility with labels during the pandemic. That means companies can make “minor formula adjustments" without changing their current labels.

The same goes for vending machines. Flexibility has been granted to certain labels on vending machine items to keep products delivered on time. These temporary rules will be removed after the pandemic ends and companies have a reasonable amount of time to update their labels.

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