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Ocean Spray Accused Of False Labeling And Marketing Of Dried Cranberries

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 27, 2010

We chronicled, at length, the long and desperate thirst for justice that Jim and Theresa Nolan fought against Ocean Spray. Vindication was to be theirs, but it was a bitter-sweet vindication, following the passing of Jim Nolan and the valiant stand by his widow, Theresa, to see the righteous triumph.

If the battle was to a large degree a personal one — for honor — it also raised the possibility that one of the nation’s most prominent produce and food companies might reflect and decide to conduct business differently. In fact, the example put before us all in the contest of wills that we observed held the hope that we might have all re-learned the importance of honesty in the conduct of our business.

Unfortunately, now there are new allegations that Ocean Spray has elected to conduct business in a disingenuous manner.

Decas Cranberry Products, Inc., a long-time competitor to Ocean Spray, issued a press release:

Decas Launches Consumer Education Website
To Expose Ocean Spray Mislabeled “Choice” Product

Decas Cranberry Products, Inc. announces the launching of a new consumer education website www.scamberry.org. This site helps consumers understand the issues behind the mislabeling of a product being sold by Ocean Spray called “Choice.” This initiative follows a petition filed with the FDA by the National Consumers League in November of 2009 accusing Ocean Spray of falsely marketing its Choice SDC (Sweetened Dried Cranberries).

Ocean Spray lists cranberry as the first ingredient for Choice when sugar should actually be listed first. According to Ocean Spray’s communications, the company uses 50% fewer barrels producing “Choice” than it uses for their Classic “soft and moist” SDC product. Ocean Spray has repeatedly stated that this product is sold to only food manufacturers but, in fact, it has been purchased by consumers at retail stores and foodservice outlets that serve the public.

In July 2009, an independent reputable laboratory, Krueger Foods Laboratories, Inc., concluded: The Choice product contains little or no cranberry soluble solids. The bulk of the solids are derived from the cane sugar. The color derives from a blend of cranberry and elderberry. The acidity derives from elderberry juice and added citric acid.

Consumers and consumer protection groups are urged to visit the new site and to take one or more of the actions noted to help stop this deception by one of the leading consumer brands in America — Ocean Spray.

The National Consumers League bills itself as America’s oldest consumer organization, founded in 1899. Now it has spoken out against Ocean Spray, requesting the FDA launch an investigation:

…the National Consumers League (NCL) called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate misleading labeling involving a new food product, Ocean Spray’s “Choice.” According to NCL, the nation’s oldest consumer advocacy organization, the product is sold to food manufacturers as a “sweetened dried cranberry” but contains more sugar than actual fruit and is made from cranberry skins — not whole cranberries.

“Sweetened dried cranberries (SDCs) have become the common or usual name for a popular ingredient in a variety of foods, capitalizing on the healthy image of cranberries and cranberry juice,” wrote Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director, in a letter to the FDA. The consumer group is concerned that, because this product is being sold as a “sweetened dried cranberry” for manufacturers’ use in breakfast cereals, cereal bars, baked goods, and trail mixes, it has the potential to result in the mislabeling of these food products.

NCL’s request that FDA investigate Ocean Spray’s Choice product is the latest in the organization’s longtime work in food safety, nutrition, and truth-in-labeling advocacy. After NCL called on the FDA to investigate claims made by Cheerios®-maker General Mills last fall, this spring the federal agency issued a cease-and-desist letter to the cereal manufacturer because the health claims exceed those permitted for food products. In August, NCL sued General Mills in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for continuing to claim that eating Cheerios® would reduce total and “bad” cholesterol.

The mislabeling of sugar-heavy products such as dried fruit, according to NCL, is of particular interest to consumers who may seek the nutrition benefits of sweetened dried cranberries without realizing they’re eating — and paying for — something that is actually quite different.

SDCs are the fastest-growing segment of the cranberry market and traditionally consist of dried cranberries that have been infused with sugar and coated with a small amount of sunflower oil. Ocean Spray Cranberries Ingredient Technology Group recently introduced the “Choice” product to food manufacturers as a less expensive alternative to SDCs on the market. Foods currently on the market that NCL believes contain Ocean Spray Choice SDC are Ann’s House Good Health Energy (a blend of soy nuts, cranberries, almonds and pumpkin kernels); Nature Valley Fruit Bars; and Pepperidge Farm Chewy Granola Cookies.

Laboratory analyses by Krueger Food Laboratories, commissioned by NCL, on November 4, 2009, found that “Choice” is really little more than cranberry skin infused with sugar syrup, consisting primarily of inverted beet sugar and citric acid. These characteristics are inconsistent with products using whole cranberries. The cranberry content is so small that Ocean Spray must add color in the form of elderberry juice concentrate and acidity in the form of citric acid to simulate the color and acidity of cranberries. These findings are consistent with Ocean Spray’s own claims that it uses 50 percent fewer cranberries to make “Choice” than the regular SDC product. Ocean Spray’s marketing materials tout “Choice” as a low-cost SDC with the same taste, texture, appearance, and health benefits as other SDCs.

“Because of its minimal cranberry content and use of other ingredients to simulate the flavor and color of cranberries, Ocean Spray’s Choice product should not be named ‘sweetened dried cranberries’,” said Greenberg. “We question whether the word ‘cranberries’ should be allowed at all in the name of this product.”

In addition, NCL said that the product label’s ingredients declaration, which lists cranberries as the predominant ingredient, is misleading and inaccurate. Greenberg stated that “according to our lab analyses, this is false and should be corrected to list sugar as the predominant ingredient.” All food labels are required to list ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight.

You can read the letter the NCL sent to the FDA here.

Ocean Spray has tried to portray the matter as a commercial dispute between two companies as there is litigation going on between Ocean Spray and Decas. The issue, however, is broader.

Most marketing for the cranberry category and for produce in general is health-based. Whether the FDA investigates or not, whatever it may rule if it does investigate, the issue is clear: Consumers are being promoted a “dried cranberry” and getting something with so little cranberry and so much sugar that it is not clear any of the health claims made for dried cranberries apply.

The allegations made by the National Consumers League depend on the technical issue of whether cranberry is the largest, or sugar is the largest, ingredient in the “choice” product. Even if in some other study cranberry manages to edge out sugar by an iota, the product is clearly not representative of the healthy vision consumers imagine when they choose cranberries.

Ocean Spray claims the product is not sold to consumers but to processors. Yet the product, once sold, can be distributed to anyone and this product has leaked into the consumer market. Besides, the processed products that incorporate the ingredient are also trading on the healthy reputation of cranberries.

In the end, this product seems to be setting up two classifications of produce: Produce items that conform to the health claims made, and produce items that don’t. This seems like a positioning likely to sow consumer skepticism and create hesitation about purchasing. That is not good for Ocean Spray, for cranberry growers or the broader industry.

Take a look at the video gone viral on this subject:

 

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