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