- Many products listed with online grocery retailers are missing key information that consumers need, such as ingredient lists, allergen information, and nutrition facts.
- The absence of this information is potentially harmful to consumers, who may use the information to manage their health and nutrition needs.
- Researchers note that key government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, are responsible for fixing this gap.
Online grocery shopping is convenient and continues to grow in popularity. But a new study published in Public Health Nutrition sheds light on a hidden downside to this shopping method—many online products do not have information about ingredients, allergens, or nutrition facts, which is a huge miss.
“Food retailers should immediately change their practices and disclose the full information panel clearly, consistently, and legibly,” says Jennifer Pomeranz, JD, MPH, assistant professor of public health policy and management at the NYU School of Global Public Health and a study author.
U.S. federal regulations require that specific information is shared on food labels. But the same requirements are not being enforced in the online grocery world. Government agencies should oversee this researchers say, but the use of online grocery shopping has outpaced the federal regulations that are required for Americans to stay informed and safe.
About the Study
Researchers looked at products listed with online grocery retailers to see if retailers are properly sharing regulated label information about products, such as ingredient lists, nutrition facts, and allergen warnings. They scanned 10 well-known products from nine national online grocery retailers.
“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.”
What’s even more troubling, researchers say, is that non-required information, such as claims like “low in fat” or “organic,” were prominently displayed on 63.5% of the products. Marketing buzzwords proved to be a priority over pertinent 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 investigated the laws to see which federal regulatory agencies are responsible for overseeing online grocery information. A deep dive into the legal requirements showed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) all have existing regulatory authority over labeling, online sales and advertising, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Why It Matters
Labeling information is important for all consumers so they can make informed choices when grocery shopping. People may use the nutrition facts panel to determine sodium and potassium to manage heart or kidney disease or may focus on sugar, fiber, or carbohydrates to manage diabetes. People with food allergies or intolerances need ingredient lists and allergy declarations to stay safe.
Sean Cash, PhD,
— Sean Cash, PhD,
“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 points out the availability of food labels makes a difference to the quality of our food choices at the population level. Not having this information potentially undermines the general
How to Address the Problem
Because multiple government agencies can play a role in enforcing online regulations, the research team spent some time investigating the proper channels.
Jennifer Pomeranz, JD, MPH
— Jennifer Pomeranz, JD, MPH
“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.”
Pomeranz explains that the FDA’s definition of labeling arguably already includes the display of products on online retailer websites because it performs the same function as package labeling.
“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 participants shop online and can run into problems if they cannot see the ingredients, nutrition facts, or allergen information of products they buy.
“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 explains that the USDA should require online retailers to display the full information panel as a prerequisite to qualifying as a SNAP retailer.
“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.
What This Means For You
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