Food Labeling Tips and Lessons From Recalls & the Kind Bar Label Thing

The internet went wild when the FDA issued Kind labeling violations

Kind Healthy Snacks Bars
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Wendy Bumgardner 

You know your food company is wildly popular (or envied) when every major news outlet covers a story. But that kind of publicity isn't always a good thing, especially if your company is the subject of a recall.

That was the case with Kind, the company behind the popular snack bars. In 2015, the FDA sent a letter to the company taking issue with how Kind described its products on its labels.

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed the labels for your...products in August, 2014...None of your products listed above meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claimed 'healthy'..."

The letter went into more detail of the messaging violations.

KIND Bars received a bevy of press from NPR, CBS, USA Today and others, not to mention on the Twitter #kindbars hashtag. The company made changes.

The downside for Kind: Expensive packaging changes. Very expensive.

The upside: A lot of visibility and discussion about the merits of Kind Bars.

(To note: In 2016, Fortune reported the FDA sent another letter to Kind that year saying it could continue using the word "healthy" on its labels. However, it stipulated it could only do so in relation to its corporate philosophy and not about its nutrients.)

Match Your Food Labels With the Product

There are several things to consider when it comes to labels. First, make sure you aren't adding in any wording that may mislead or misdirect your consumers. It's one thing to misuse the FDA's definition of "healthy" on a food package, but it's quite another to be subject to a recall due to labeling issues.

As you plan your food products and ingredients, know labels touting a food as "natural" or "all-natural" may be targeted for investigation more often than those stating a food is organic. So make sure your labels are accurate.

Also consider whether your label is declaring all the ingredients. So many recalls are issued because of undeclared ingredients or allergens, which mean more products being pulled off shelves. These were the dominant recall trend in 2017, according to Food Safety Magazine. Milk was the top undeclared allergen that year and was the subject of 110 recalls.

When the product is recalled, it can become costly because it has to be destroyed. There's also the added cost of communication. Recalls can, therefore, make or break your food business, whether you experience issues with your own food or an ingredient from another source.

Here are some common issues that may arise with ingredient-based recalls:

  • Improper processing of ingredients
  • Gluten found in gluten-free products and other cross-contamination
  • Packaging and labeling errors
  • Ingredients in a product were recalled themselves

How Prevalent are Recalls?

As mentioned above, undeclared allergens are the main reason why a recall is issued. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) sends out emails reporting even the smallest food product recalls. In 2017, the agency issued a total of 131 recalls, covering a total of 20.9 million pounds of product. These included:

  • Products recalled due to adulteration, misbranding and undeclared allergens
  • Meat and seafood containing extraneous material (such as plastic and metal)
  • Products contaminated with food-borne illnesses such as salmonella

Small Food Processors Aren't Immune To Recalls

Recalls can even be issued even if they deal with a single product at just one store. That was the case in 2015, when FSIS issued a recall notice for 32 pounds of beef jerky product sold at just one store. According to the recall, there was a problem with the way the meat was processed, making it susceptible to pathogens.

Because of the scope and cost of dealing with recalls — not to mention the Food Safety Modernization Act — larger food and beverage companies often have their own traceability and recall system in place. In fact, most large food retailers require a traceability system.

Food manufacturers track food production batches to isolate issues to a range of batches with serial numbers and dates, minimizing the scope of a recall to also minimize the number of people impacted by food safety problems.

Costs of a Food Recall

If you're thinking of a DIY label or skipping a review by a lawyer, consider the following costs involved with a recall:

  • Loss of food itself
  • The cost of notifying resellers who may have purchased the food about the recall
  • The cost of helping the resellers reach out to consumers who have purchased the food
  • Processing returns and replacements
  • Manufacturing the new food

That's just the start of your potential costs. There's also your reputation, time and the energy you could be spending growing the business.

Product Recall Insurance Protects Food Companies

Product recall insurance is available and should be worth considering if you are making claims related to allergens or producing foods subject to safety issues like listeria or ecoli.

A good way to decide if the investment in product recall insurance is worth it is to weigh:

  • The downside risk that your labels or manufacturing process may involve undeclared allergens (or other issues)
  • The cost of insurance and the probability of recalls
  • The size of the recall (based on your batch sides and distribution) if one actually occurs

The Bottom Line

You can never be too careful when writing and designing your food product labels.

  • Hire a lawyer who specializes in food, and eats and breathes FDA regulations to review the labels.
  • Work with designers experienced in food product labels. You may think a designer can learn about food packaging as she or he goes, but the FDA has very specific rules of how, what and where label text needs to be positioned. And size (of the text and label) does matter to the FDA, too.
  • Triple check before hiring a co-packer that — if you're making nutritional claims especially related to allergens — you learn what other foods are made using the same equipment, machinery, and utensils.

    The more you can avoid using words the FDA flags as vague and misleading, the easier your food label journey will be.

    Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act on the basis of any content included in this article without seeking legal or other professional advice. The contents of this article contain general information and may not reflect current legal developments or address your situation. The author and sources disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on any content on this article.