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Do Words Speak Louder Than Deeds?

Federal Trade Commission ‘green’ labeling guidelines

Consumer and market demands for sustainability have played a part in bringing packaging into the food safety system. For example, increased pressure to use recycled material in food packaging has led to unintended consequences like those revealed by 2011 Swiss research regarding the unsafe migration of mineral oil from recycled paper and cardboard into foodstuffs.

While the food safety community strives to bring packaging under hazard analysis and critical control points (HAACP) safety models, both packaging and food producers must now also consider the impact of the “Green Guides” issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC’s guidance regarding package and product environmental claims can affect both food safety concerns and potential consumer action for false labeling. Because the purchases of eco-friendly consumers continue to be influenced by environmental packaging efforts, companies need to understand what’s at stake in deciding to adopt—or ignore—the guidance provided.

The Green Guides
The FTC issued the Green Guides to provide guidance for marketers seeking to make claims about the environmental effects of products or product packaging. The goal is to guide companies away from making claims that are considered deceptive under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

The guides address a wide array of claims, such as degradable, compostable, recyclable, ‘free-of’ and nontoxic. Absent, however, is any guidance on marketing products as organic, sustainable and natural—terms that have been the subject of much false labeling litigation. In the FTC’s view, it lacked a sufficient basis to provide meaningful guidance and wanted to avoid proposing guidance that duplicates or contradicts rules of other agencies.

According to the FTC, the Guides are not enforceable regulations and do not have the force and effect of law. Rather, they provide the basis for voluntary compliance and assist in guiding the public in conducting business in conformance with the law. The FTC warns that an environmental marketing claim should not be presented in a manner that overstates the environmental attribute or benefit, expressly or by implication.

Under the Green Guides, marketers should avoid implications of significant environmental benefits if the benefit is in fact negligible. Factors such as clarity of language, relative type/size, and proximity to the claim being qualified, in addition to an absence of contrary claims that could undercut effectiveness, will maximize the likelihood that qualifications and disclosures are appropriately clear and prominent.

Moreover, marketers should present environmental claims in a way that makes clear whether the environmental attribute or benefit being asserted refers to the product, the product’s packaging, a service, or to a portion or component of the product, package, or service.

In general, if the environmental attribute or benefit applies to all but minor, incidental components of a product or package, the FTC says the claim need not be qualified to identify that fact.

The Green Guides and Food Safety CLAIMS
Inevitably, marketers and packaging producers will have to work together to determine how to satisfy requirements.