Food Labels Missing at Online Grocery Stores Must Be Fixed, Study Finds

July 27, 2022

A recent study revealed a hidden drawback to this type of shopping—many internet products lack information regarding ingredients, allergens, or nutrition facts, which is a major oversight.

Federal regulations in the United States demand that specified information be included on food labels. The internet grocery industry does not, however, adhere to the same rules. The usage of online grocery shopping has overtaken federal rules that are necessary for Americans to be informed and safe, according to experts, who argue that government authorities should be in charge of overseeing this.

About the Study

To determine if shops are correctly disclosing regulated label information about items, such as ingredient lists, nutrition details, and allergen warnings, researchers examined products listed with online grocery stores. Ten well-known goods from nine international online grocery stores were scanned.

"Our examination revealed concerning deficiencies in the provision of required Nutrition Facts labels, ingredient lists, common food allergens, and percent juice for fruit drinks," says Sean Cash, PhD, Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and a study author. "Required information was present, conspicuous, and legible for only 36.5% of observations."

The fact that non-required information, such as promises like "low in fat" or "organic," was prominently displayed on 63.5 percent of the items, according to researchers, is even more concerning. It turned out that marketing jargon took precedence over important allergy or ingredient information.

"Right now consumers cannot count on finding some important information in online grocery stores that would otherwise be easily visible on the packages in conventional grocery stores, even while health-related marketing claims may be more readily accessible," says Dr. Cash.

Researchers also looked at the legal framework to determine which federal regulatory bodies are in charge of policing information on groceries available online. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) all currently have regulatory authority over labeling, online sales and advertising, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to a thorough analysis of the legal requirements (SNAP).

Why It Matters

All customers should pay attention to label information so they may buy for groceries with knowledge. People may use the sodium and potassium information on the nutrition facts panel to manage heart or kidney illness, or they may concentrate on the sugar, fiber, or carbohydrates to manage diabetes. Ingredient lists and allergy warnings are necessary for people who have food allergies or intolerances to keep safe.

"Difficulty in finding mandatory allergen information on some products could actually pose an immediate danger of a severe reaction or even death to the most sensitive consumers," says Dr. Cash.

Dr. Cash also emphasizes how the accessibility of food labels affects the standard of our dietary choices on a population level. Lack of knowledge could jeopardize the public's overall health.

How to Address the Problem

The research team spent considerable time looking into the appropriate channels because several government entities may be involved in policing online laws.

“Congress can enact a law to require online food retailers to display the full information panel for food products sold online,” says Pomeranz.  “My legal analysis led me to conclude that the FDA, FTC, and USDA have existing authorities to address the lack of consistent disclosure of required information for food sold through online retailers.”

Because it serves the same purpose as package labeling, Pomeranz argues that the FDA's definition of labeling already encompasses the product display on online retailer websites.

“The FDA could issue guidance or warning letters on this point,” says Pomeranz. “The FTC has the authority to address unfair and deceptive acts and practices, and the lack of disclosure may qualify as both.”

Consequences for SNAP Participants

Many SNAP users shop online, and when they cannot view the ingredients, nutrition details, or allergen information of the products they purchase, this can cause issues.

“For SNAP participants, the lack of transparency is especially concerning because they may not have a choice among online retailers who accept SNAP benefits,” says Pomeranz. “Other consumers can choose which online retailer to use—and can make that choice based on transparent sales and
marketing practices. SNAP beneficiaries do not necessarily have that same choice.”

Pomeranz argues that as a condition of being approved as a SNAP merchant, the USDA should make it mandatory for online sellers to show the entire information panel.

“If the USDA acted, retailers would likely quickly abide by the requirements as the fear of losing the ability to accept and redeem SNAP benefits would likely outweigh concerns over violating FDA labeling regulations, for instance,” says Pomeranz.

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