Misbranding

Misbranding is defined as the practice of incorporating in the product name a geographical location which is different from that declared in the responsibility statement. For example, the if product name was “Hawaii Cookies” and the product was manufactured in California, the product would be misbranded.

Misbranding is not an uncommon practice used as a means to promote one’s product line. Misbranded products, however, are in violation of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966. But since misbranding constitutes economic fraud rather than a health hazard, it has not been a top priority issue in FDA’s enforcement. Misbranding was usually referred to the Office of Consumer Protection for enforcement rather than the Department of Health.

The Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA) requested Food Technology Extension program in 1990 to conduct a study on misbranding. The objective was to document scientifically consumer perception and attitudes toward food misbranding. The project was partially funded by the Hawaii Governor’s Agricultural Coordinating Committee. The recommendations remain applicable today.

A national, 3-tiered mail survey of a random sampling of 2,600 respondents (2,100 from the Mainland and 500 from Hawaii) in the United States was conducted in April-May 1990. These samplings were representative of the national population in the U.S. The survey was designed to determine the use and attitude toward food labeling; specifically, the survey identified which parts of the label respondents looked at the most and which influenced their purchase decision. Processed foods and seafood were used as examples. Their expectations of price, quality, and value were also determined.

There was a 47.1% response rate, 39.8% from the Mainland U.S. and 55.6% from Hawaii. In 1990, respondents looked at price, product name, and brand name almost all the time when looking at product label information. In addition, approximately 76.1% (p<0.05) looked at the place of manufacture. About 97.7% (p<0.05 in Hawaii) of the respondents declared that price influenced their purchase decision but almost half (49%, p<0.05 in Hawaii) stated that the place of manufacture influenced their purchase decision. At that time, approximately 73.4% of the respondents expected a relationship between the product and its name containing a geographical location. Using the same example described earlier, approximately 78.8% of respondents would have expected “Hawaii Cookies” to be made in Hawaii with major ingredients from Hawaii. If the company mentioned in the responsibility statement was not from Hawaii and the vignette showed Hawaii scenes, about 73.4% of respondents considered the product label inappropriate, with 78.4% of the respondents describing the practice as misleading or deceptive. Respondents considered misbranding an important issue (68.2%). Thus, respondents expected a relationship between a product name with a geographical location and the product.

An important implication of these studies is that the product responsibility statement on the product label needs to always include the actual manufacturer’s name and address, such as “Manufactured for __ by __” or Packed for __ by __.” The terms “Distributed for __”, “Distributed by __”, “Sold for __” and “Sold by__”, and similar statements need to identify the actual manufacturer.

Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) emphasizes the critical role of suppliers. Without the supply-chain line accurately identified, the safety of the food product is difficult to establish. The point of initial distribution of the food is needed for its food safety. Results of these studies indicated that regulatory agencies treat economic fraud and health issues both as consumer priority issues. The publications providing science-based documentation on the impact of misbranding on consumer perceptions are shown below.

Hodgson, A.S. and Bruhn, C.M. 1993. Consumer attitudes toward the use of geographical product descriptors as a marketing technique for locally gown or manufactured foods. Journal of Food Quality 16(3): 163-174. Article 

Hodgson, A.S. and Bruhn, C.M. 1992. Geographical names on product labels: Consumer attitudes toward their use. Food Technology 46(2): 83-89. Article