Labels and other ‘Krafty’ Stuff #mythbusting101

I am a huge fan Kraft Mac n’ Cheese (AKA ‘KD’). When I was young, broke and living on my own, it was a food ‘staple’.  As a household, now, we probably consume only about 6 boxes per year. Times change.  But KD doesn’t. I find that it still ‘hits the spot’ sometimes. 

The other day, I saw a photo like this circulating on Pinterest with the headline “WARNING: look at what’s in your Kraft Mac n’ Cheese! 

Source: Food Babe

Source: Food Babe

When I first saw the label, I thought it was total bunk; garbage. My judgement was based not only on the label content but also on what appeared to me to be a rather ‘amateurish’ label design. Hey, it was a fair assumption. I mean, how hard could it be to stop at Staples, pick up a pack of Avery labels and design/print labels with deceptive information? In terms of content, a first clue was that “macaroni” was spelled incorrectly (as “macroni”). The other red flag for me was the label’s “GMO declaration” – “made from genetically modified wheat.” WHAT?!? (I’ll get to the ‘wheat’ thing later).

Fig. 3

photo taken by colleague in London, May 31, 2013

After a bit of social media scanning, I found out that this label was on a package of KD that was imported from the US to the United Kingdom (UK).  As I was not familiar with import and labeling regulations in the UK, I launched into several hours of research – scouring regulatory documents and scanning the websites of UK importers.  Not to mention, I exchanged a flurry of emails with colleagues who are more ‘in the know’ about such things. I even managed to score a photo of another labeled box of KD from a colleague in London (below).

First, I wanted to compare what I knew to be a legitimate label on a package of KD (above, purchased by a trusted colleague) with one that had been circulating on social media. Summary below:

KD labels side by side

Photo of Label 1 sourced from Food Babe

Label 1: As far as I can tell, the photo of this label was introduced to the Internet via the Food Babe website. The date that this particular box of KD was originally purchased is unknown. But Food Babe did publish another photo of a package of KD yesterday that appears to have the same format and content as the one pictured above. The photo also included the May 31, 2013 issue of The Times of London as a ‘time stamp’ (the photo was taken at a Tesco location in North London).  The product importer was Innovative Bites Ltd.

Label 2: Photographed by a colleague on May 31, 2013, this label was on a package of KD that he purchased at a local Tesco retailer in London.  The product importer was PS Foods Limited.

Note the differences. To illustrate these differences, I pulled together a table that outlines what is and isn’t included on the respective labels.

table KD

Allergen Information: Regulatory bodies in many countries in the world have labelling requirements for specific priority allergens (plus gluten sources / added sulphites) in foods (Canada, US, EU). Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both of which are food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder) are known in the EU as Tartrazine (E102), and Sunset Yellow (E110) respectively. In a 2007 study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, hyperactivity in children was linked to artificial colorings and a food preservative. This prompted the European Parliament to pass a law in July 2008 requiring products containing food dyes in Europe to carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” (as shown on Label 1, absent on Label 2).

GMOs: The EU (including the UK) has a very different political and regulatory approach to genetically engineered crops and GMOs than we do in North America. While mandatory labelling of GMOs isn’t required here in Canada (or the US), the European Commission requires that pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs have labels that indicate so. As much as 70% of food in our grocery stores in North America is made with genetically modified ingredients (soy, canola, corn). Therefore an importer of a prepackaged product from the US (as in this case) may include “may contain GMOs” on the label for no other reason than to cover their butts.

But here’s the real kicker about Label 1.  Label 1 states – definitively – that the product is “made from genetically modified wheat.” There has never been a genetically engineered wheat on the market.  Never. Not anywhere in the world. So, even if Kraft wanted to make its product(s) with GE wheat, it couldn’t. The information on Label 1 is inaccurate and grossly misleading.

Ingredients: I couldn’t find a (credible, regulatory) document that outlined protocols for labeling imported prepackaged food in the UK. So, I will pose some possible reasons for why one of these labels had ingredients and the other didn’t.

Maybe it depends on the placement of the label.  Label 2 was placed on the upper part of the side of the box.  The (US) factory printed ingredient list was near the bottom so it wasn’t obscured. Maybe that’s why the ingredient list didn’t need to be repeated on the label.  As for the other product (Label 1), it wasn’t photographed in full so I don’t really know where the label was placed.  One thing that would justify a list of ingredients beyond the factory printed list (as in Label 1) would be a clarification of ingredients.  You will recall earlier that I mentioned that the food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder are referred to differently in the UK (EU) than they are in North America. Including an edited ingredients list would be useful (and informative) in this case. (Related: see Rob Wallbridge’s post on his blog The Fanning Mill where he talks about interpretation and meaning of (ag-based) words in different parts of the world).

Note: ‘Best Before’ dates are included on Label 1 but not on Label 2.

Is safety an issue? In a word, NO.

Food dyes: Both Yellow 5 (Tartrazine (E102)) and Yellow 6 and (Sunset Yellow (E110)) have safety approval in the US (USDA/FDA), the EU (EFSA) and other jurisdictions in the world. A panel of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) experts met with the center for Science in the Public Interest in 2011 to consider relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children. Based upon the available evidence, the panel ruled that a causal link between food dyes and ADHD has not been established.  They did, however, suggest that more research needed to be done.  These food dyes (and Kraft) are still under fire. There are lobbying efforts underway to push the company to remove these additives from their product lines.

GM Wheat:  No GE wheat varieties have been approved for commercial production in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Monsanto, however, was authorized to field test glyphosate tolerant wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005.  Recently, glyphosate tolerant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field.  APHIS has launched an official investigation (press release here). Check out the post at Biofortified “Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon.” Karl Haro von Mogel provides some great links to resources there.

Needless to say, this recent discovery, in combination with the Kraft label issue, only serves to fuel the fire of controversy and raises questions about the safety of GE wheat. But the FDA reviewed this glyphosate tolerant wheat back in 2004 and determined it that there was no food safety risk associated with the crop variety.

So, what SHOULD we be concerned about? 

MISL LABELS

The EU watchdog must be asleep. It appears that different UK importers (in this case, Innovative Bites Ltd (UK) and PS Foods Limited) attach different labels to meet requirements. More problematic, however, are the gross errors in labeling; from simple spelling errors, to omissions, to completely inaccurate information. The lack of consistency in content, format and structure of label information creates uncertainty and confusion. This does little to incite product confidence for the consumer. Another unfortunate by-product of this kind of ‘fuzzy’ labeling is that it provides the perfect opportunity for the ‘food police’ (a la Jayson Lusk) and the anti-GM movement to move in and work their own kind of ‘craft’. They can quickly spin stories (such as here and here) to further sway public opinion through misleading information.

As a consumer I want nutritional and other information about the food that I buy. But I want accurate and meaningful information.  Don’t you?

UPDATES HERE

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“Crowd-sourced Mythbusting” is a great thing! Please weigh in on the topic and share your knowledge, thoughts and opinion!

12 thoughts on “Labels and other ‘Krafty’ Stuff #mythbusting101

  1. I have only followed this casually, but wasn’t there some speculation that the term “corn” means different things in North America and Europe. The thought was that someone saw GM corn, which actually meant GM maize, but translated that to GM wheat for Europe because corn there means a kernel of grain. While KD is primarily wheat, it could conceivably have GM maize in the form of corn starch or similar.

  2. I was thinking about this–if this is the over-reaction we can expect from EU-like labels, we’re gonna have to have hair-fire-extinguishers in every grocery aisle.

    Seriously, though, people are going to completely misunderstand a GMO label and blow it out of proportion. Even if they were correct labels. It will not diffuse this drama at all.

  3. Fascinating to me. The US Mommy Bloggers are on a push to get Kraft to staart making thhe same mac & cheese here that they sell in the UK. Without the yellow coloring. So evidently people in the UK WANT the yellow mac & cheese so much they will pay to have it imported.

  4. ::slow clap:: that is all. Thank you! I am a ‘mommy blogger’ but also a grain farmer’s wife (@WheatlanderJay) and it drives me NUTS the amount of false information out there trying to scare parents with “GMO soy in Similac formula” etc. Yes there is GMO in formula…but it is NOT unsafe to consume.

  5. This is a great post – thanks for the mention and link to my own reaction. I’m very impressed by the depth of your research and honestly don’t have a whole lot to add, other than my compliments!

    We occasionally shop in some of the ethnic grocery stores in Ottawa, so I’m used to seeing these stick-on labels on imported goods (especially ones that don’t comply with Frech/English bilingual requirements). As you’ve noted, the degree of detail usually corresponds to the section of the original label that is covered by the sticker. Spelling mistakes and other errors are not uncommon.

    It’s this experience that led me to suspect human error in the case of these labels, as well as knowing that the British have different terminology for a whole bunch of things – crops included. (If you’re ever touring a British farm and you’re reminded to “pop your wellies in the boot” before setting off, rest assured that they’re just asking you to put your rubber boots in the trunk of your car!)

  6. Reblogged this on Cami Ryan and commented:

    UPDATE (June 4, 2013) You will recall my colleague from London that I mention in the post below. Well, he did some more sleuthing. He contacted an importer and queried him on labeling practice. Here’s the scoop:
    The Labels: I was wrong. Rather than developed by the importers, these labels are actually designed and ordered by the retailer. In this case, Tesco. So, rather than there being a lack of consistency in labeling protocols on the part of importers (as I suggested), labeling protocols are differentiated across retailers – even those within the same chain of retailers (Tesco). The whole process appears to be quite subjective.
    GMO label info: My colleague challenged the importer on the blatantly inaccurate information on the label. The importer’s response? “GM Wheat is being sold in the US.” And, after my colleague corrected him on this, he said: “Well, there is GM wheat growing in Oregon.” Yes, we know that. But a photo of the inaccurate label was circulating on social media (Pinterest) BEFORE the Oregon issue presented itself. Hmmm…
    The importer said that they are currently awaiting follow-up information from Kraft. Local trading Standards officers are also seeking clarification. I guess we will wait to see what happens.
    I will update as any new information arises. I think that there is one thing that we can all agree on: Ensuring standardization and efficacy of labeling regimes are good for the retailer, the importer, the food company and – most of all – the consumer.

  7. Question: Do you or your contacts have an explanation for the mismatch in the weights provided by the two importers? Innovative Bites’s box shows a weight of 7.25 ounces, which matches what Kraft sells here in the States. PS Foods Ltd’s box shows a weight of 8 ounces, significantly more. Kraft doesn’t sell any mac and cheese boxed product in the US with a weight of 8 ounces; PS Foods itself lists 206g (7.25 oz) rather than 227g (8 oz) on its website. It seems like a random error, presumably on Tesco’s part, given that it would not have arisen from any logical transposition or mistype of numbers. I did consider the possibility that Tesco’s label included the box, but a box ought to weigh more than 0.75 ounce.

    I’m just curious if you have any feedback on this picky little discrepancy. 🙂

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