Ask a Food Safety Expert: Ned Klein

food safety

Food safety and compliance can be a minefield. The average entrepreneur doesn’t have the time to keep up with changing regulations or read arcane food codes. Despite the difficulties makers experience in attempting to comply, staying on the right side of the law is among their most important responsibilities. That’s why we brought in food safety consultant Ned Klein! We called for your questions in our newsletter, and he answers one common one below.

What product claims can I print on my packaging without getting certified? 

Contrary to popular belief, many product claims do not legally require certification. According to the FDA, you don’t need to pay or complete an application to print “non-GMO” on your food packaging. Of course, if you want to use the Non-GMO Project’s recognizable butterfly label, then you would have to pursue certification with them. But if you want to avoid the cost and the headache, consider the following product claims, which can be printed without any certification.

Gluten-Free”: According to the FDA, anyone can put this claim on their food product label insofar as it’s actually true. Current technology can only detect 20ppm, so that has become the de facto threshold for gluten-containing products. 

Non-GMO”: This type of product claim does not require any certification to be printed on food packaging. The FDA has expressed their displeasure with this type of claim because they view it as inaccurate — calling a corn muffin “non-GMO” is ridiculous because a corn muffin is not an organism. They’d rather you say “we do not use ingredients that were produced using modern biotechnology”. However, the FDA has pointed out that they won’t take action against use of the acronym “GMO” insofar as its use is truthful.

“Natural”: No certification required. Research suggests that consumers will pay more for products that are labeled “all-natural”. And while the FDA hasn’t specifically regulated the term “natural”, they have defined how they interpret it: a “natural” product contains no artificial ingredients, synthetic ingredients or ingredients that a consumer would not expect to find in food. 

This is a fairly broad view and only pertains to ingredients, not necessarily production processes.  For example, an “all natural” food can contain ingredients treated with pesticides or antibiotics. 

Even within such a broad definition,  food companies like LaCroix are being challenged on their “100% Natural” claims, not by the FDA but by a class-action lawsuit. Only the most egregious labeling errors are enforced by the FDA. The more likely outcome for recklessly printing claims on your packaging is that major retailers will view your product as a liability and refuse to carry it.

“Healthy” : No certification required, although the FDA does regulate use of the claim “healthy” on food packaging. While the requirements are slightly different to across types of food, products labeled “healthy” generally require low levels of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Foods which are more heavily processed are also required to have a minimum of 10% of the recommended daily value for important vitamins and minerals. To see how the specific standards apply to your product scroll down to the table printed in the FDA regulations.

“Organic” Any food product may use the word “organic” when describing items in the ingredients list. This doesn’t require certification. However, if you wish to print the word “organic” anywhere else on the packaging, then the product must be certified by the USDA, which certifies several levels of organic products.

Ready to use these claims on your food packaging? It’s most important to make sure your claims are not misleading and comply with other labeling regulations. To get a quick overview of FDA labeling regulations or learn more about product claims, check out our food labeling guides on FDA Reader.

Ned Klein is a food safety consultant and the founder of FDAreader.com, a web resource dedicated to simplifying food regulations.

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