One of the largest marketers of margarines and spreads in the United States has signed an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to settle charges over a national advertising campaign for Promise margarine that focused on consumers' heart health concerns. The campaign used "Get Heart Smart" as its slogan and showed heart-shaped pats of Promise on food items. The FTC alleged that the ads implied without adequate supporting evidence that eating Promise margarines and spreads helps reduce the risk of heart disease, and also that the ads included false low-fat and low-saturated-fat claims. The New York City-based manufacturer, Conopco, Inc., is a subsidiary of Unilever United States, Inc. which also markets margarines and spreads under the Imperial, Shedd's Country Crock and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter brand lines through its Van Den Bergh Foods Company operating division. The settlement announced today would prohibit Conopco from making unsubstantiated or false health or nutrient content claims for all these products. In addition, in any ad including a "no cholesterol" claim for a margarine or spread that contains a significant amount of fat, Conopco has agreed to clearly state the total fat content.
"The evidence just doesn't support the absolute, unqualified healthy-heart claim we found in the Promise ads because of the high fat levels in the products," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Gram for gram, Promise margarines and spreads probably do provide a comparative 'healthy heart' advantage over fats like butter that contain more saturated fat. On the other hand, the products at issue also contain high levels of total fat and trans fatty acids."
The advertising at issue in the FTC case was for Promise spread (9.5 grams of fat per 1 tablespoon serving, 34 grams of fat per 50 grams), Promise Extra Light margarine (5.6 grams of fat per 1 tablespoon serving, 20 grams of fat per 50 grams), and Promise Ultra (26%) spread (3.64 grams of fat per 1 tablespoon serving, 13 grams of fat per 50 grams). (The FTC did not challenge claims for Promise Ultra Fat Free Nonfat spread.)
In the complaint detailing its charges in the Promise case, the FTC cited several commercials and print ads that included various health and nutrient-related statements and depictions. One commercial showed newspaper headlines such as, "HEART DISEASE: Nation's #1 Killer," and "HEALTH TODAY" followed by the subhead, "Serum Cholesterol: the warning is real." This particular commercial also showed heart-shaped pats of margarine on a plate of pancakes and a package of Promise spread with the statements, "Low in Saturated Fat" and "No Cholesterol." The commercial concluded with the "Get Heart Smart" slogan.
The FTC said it challenged these and other ads because they conveyed one or more of the following claims: that eating Promise spread, Promise Extra Light margarine or Promise Ultra (26%) spread helps reduce the risk of heart disease; that these products are low in total fat; and that Promise spread is low in saturated fat. But the evidence was not adequate to support the absolute and unqualified heart disease claim, the FTC charged, and the fat-content claims are false. Moreover, the FTC alleged that the "no cholesterol" claims for Promise spread and Promise Extra Light margarine were deceptive because the ads failed to disclose that the spreads also contain a significant amount of total fat.
The proposed consent agreement Conopco has signed to settle the FTC charges would require the firm to have adequate scientific substantiation before making any claim that a margarine or spread reduces the risk of heart disease, or that it causes or contributes to a risk factor for any disease or health-related condition. The consent agreement also would prohibit the firm from misrepresenting the amount of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or calories in any spread or margarine. When making a nutrient-content claim such as "low fat," the settlement would require Conopco to follow Food and Drug Administration labeling regulations for the qualifying amount of the nutrient for such claims.
Further, the order would require Conopco to disclose clearly and prominently the total grams of fat per serving whenever it makes a claim about the amount of cholesterol in any margarine or spread that contains a significant amount of fat (as specified in FDA labeling regulations). For three years, ads for Promise margarine or spreads that must include the total fat disclosure also would have to disclose either the percentage of calories derived from fat or the fact that the product is not low in fat.
The settlement also contains various reporting and recordkeeping provisions that would assist the FTC in monitoring compliance, as well as a provision making clear that claims specifically permitted by FDA regulations would not be prohibited under the settlement.
The Commission vote to announce the proposed consent agreement for public comment was 5-0. A summary of the agreement will be published in the Federal Register shortly. The agreement will be subject to public comment for 60 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make it final. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.
NOTE: A consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $10,000.
Copies of the complaint, proposed consent agreement and an analysis of them to assist the public in commenting on this case are available on the Internet at the FTC's World Wide Web site at: http://www.ftc.gov, or by calling 202-326-3627. FTC documents also are available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2161 or 202-326-2180
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Anne V. Maher, 202-326-2987
Rosemary Rosso, 202-326-2174
(FTC File No. 912 3336)