Food labels are missing from online grocery stores

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According to a new study by researchers from the NYU School of Global Public Health and Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, online food retailers do not consistently display nutrition information on their websites, and US laws lag behind in mandating the same labeling required for foods sold in brick-and-mortar stores.

«Information required to be provided to consumers in conventional grocery stores is not being provided uniformly online—in fact, it only appears on roughly a third of the online grocery items we surveyed,» said Jennifer Pomeranz, an assistant professor of public health policy and management at the NYU School of Global Public Health and the study’s lead author.

«Our research demonstrates that today’s online food shopping environment is a bit of a ‘Wild West,’ with customers receiving insufficient and inconsistent nutrition information,» said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and senior author of the paper. «Online shopping will only grow in popularity, providing a fantastic opportunity to actively influence consumers to make healthy and safe decisions. We must seize this opportunity to aid in the fight against the country’s nutrition-related health crisis.»

Before COVID-19, online grocery purchasing was fast-rising, but the epidemic has drastically increased its use. Online grocery sales in the United States tripled from 3.4 percent to 10.2 percent between 2019 and 2020, and are expected to reach 21.5 percent of total sales by 2025. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a pilot program in 2019 that allows SNAP recipients to shop for food online.

The rapid expansion of online grocery shopping, on the other hand, has overtaken regulatory attention to information on items sold online. While US law mandates the inclusion of nutrition facts, allergen information, and ingredient lists on physical food packaging, these laws do not yet apply to online sellers. As a result, online grocery buyers may not have access to critical health and safety information.

The researchers studied 10 main products across nine major online grocery shops to see what information is displayed in order to better understand the landscape of what information appears with online groceries.

They concentrated on bread, cereals, and drinks—packaged items that must include a standardized information panel that includes nutrition facts, a list of ingredients, common food allergies, and, in the case of fruit drinks, the percent juice. The researchers also looked at the legal authority and constraints of the federal government in terms of compelling online food vendors to give nutrition information.

They discovered that just 36.5 percent of the time, this information was provided and legible across all items and merchants. Only 11.4 percent of items had potential allergies listed, and nutrition facts and ingredient lists were only approximately half of the time (45.7 percent and 54.2 percent, respectively). On the other hand, health and nutrition-related claims like «low sodium» were more prominent on internet product photos, appearing on 63.5 percent of them.

«Our findings highlight the current failure of both regulations and industry practice to provide a consistent environment in which online consumers can access information that is required in traditional stores,» said study author and Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School Sean Cash. «With online grocery sales expected to reach $100 billion by 2021, the criteria for providing consumers with information must keep pace with the changing marketplace.»

The researchers then looked at the legal authority and constraints of the federal government in terms of compelling online food vendors to give nutrition information. They identified three federal agencies with current regulatory power over food labeling (the FDA), internet sales and advertising (the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC), and SNAP merchants (the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA) (the USDA). The researchers come to the conclusion that these agencies’ existing powers can be used to solve labeling deficiencies in the online food retail context.

«To assist consumer health and informed decision-making, the federal government can and should act to demand that online food vendors give required nutrition and allergen information,» Pomeranz said.

According to the researchers, failing to regularly provide this information on food goods may pose a risk to customers who rely on it, such as in the case of allergies, sodium, or sugar.

«Consumers who are mainly unable to protect themselves are protected by labeling laws. This is especially true for internet transactions since customers are unable to inspect things in person «Pomeranz said. «At the very least, people shopping for groceries online should be able to see and read the complete mandated nutritional information panel.»

Additional study authors include Morgan Springer of the Friedman School and Inés M. Del Giudice of the NYU School of Global Public Health.

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