Sunday, November 09, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: JUDGING A MEAL BY ITS BOX


"Election year or not," Dennis Akren writes, "this is what folks really want to know."

Is he talking about the economy? Health care? The wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan or on terror?

No. What has Akren flummoxed is shrimp scampi.

Akren, a teacher in Ladera Ranch, Calif., is none too happy about the shrimp scampi sold in the frozen-foods section of his supermarket.

Recently he purchased a 10-ounce, single-serving package of the dish, basing his decision on the mouthwatering photograph on the cover of the box -- a tantalizing color photo depicting 11 shrimp on a plate mixed with some pasta and diced tomatoes.

I've seen the photo. It is indeed tempting to any hungry shopper who hankers for a serving of shrimp sauteed with garlic and lemon butter.

When Akren cooked up his meal, however, only six shrimp graced his plate. Compared to the box illustration, he was five shrimp short.

Granted, many recipes for shrimp scampi call for 1.5 pounds of shrimp to serve four people. If we're talking large shrimp, that translates roughly to 33 shrimp, which is eight shrimp per helping. So six shrimp doesn't seem far off the mark for a reasonable single serving.

That's beside Akren's point, though. His issue is the packaging.

"Showing 11, yet giving only six, seems hardly fair or ethical," he writes.

Thinking his first experience might have been a fluke, he cooked up another batch two nights later. Still only six shrimp, from a box that still showed 11.

When he buys a six-piece Chicken McNuggets dish from McDonald's, Akren says, he expects to get six McNuggets, and does. But in that case the number is clearly specified on the menu.

"But what about when you can only go by the picture?," he asks. "Is it unethical for the company to clearly have less product in the actual meal than the picture may show? Shouldn't the company be called on it? They are essentially doubling their profit because they are only putting half of the featured food in the actual meal."

Government agencies in both the United States and Canada do have regulations forbidding deceptive advertising. Nothing on the packaging lists the number of shrimp in a given package, however, and the photo bears the caption "serving suggestion," so it's unlikely that regulatory agencies will take these companies to food court.

Still, however legal it may be, is it ethical for companies to pump up their plates to draw in consumers? Clearly, when it says "serving suggestion," the company isn't implying that the consumer should purchase another five shrimp to toss into the meal -- or is it?

There's nothing wrong with companies doing their best to make their food look as scrumptious as possible on the packaging, utilizing professional preparation, expert lighting and clever camera angles to show themselves at their best. In this case, however, Akren does have a legitimate gripe. It's wrong for companies to package their products in depictions that clearly misrepresent the contents.

Gifted food stylists can make a plate of six shrimp on pasta look as good as one with 11 shrimp. The right thing for this company to do is either to beef up the shrimp content to match the depiction on the box or to reshoot its packaging photography to more accurately reflect what's inside. Not to do so is misleading. Whether or not this is the issue that people really want to know about this election year depends, I suppose, on how hungry they are.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read your article. I am an attorney with 40 years experience in food regulation, 25 years as corporate counsel with The Borden Company and the reminder in private practice.

The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and similar laws in virtually all states, have a a provision that a food is deemed to be misbranded if its labeling is false or misleading in any particular.

A photo on a food package is part of "labeling".

Including the term "serving suggestion" is not an out.

Unfortunately the federal FDA, using the lame excuse that they have limited resources, very rarely enforces instances that involve economic deception. This creates a very uneven playing field for my clients that voluntarily comply with the law.

One alternative for Mr. Akren is to file a complaint the the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau, in New York City.

Here is the contact info.

Sheryl Harris
National Advertising Division
70 W 36th St., 13th Floor
New York, NY 10018
phone: 212-705-0120
email: sharris@nad.bbb.org

I hope you rind this information helpful.

Jerome R. Schindler
Columbus, OH

Anonymous said...

Can anyone say "tilting at windmills"? The country is in the worst economic trouble since the Great Depression, we have just elected a Marxist as President and someone is worried about a serving of shrimp. This man has too much time on his hands. And, note the reply, giving evidence of another problem in our society, the suggestion that the answer is some kind of legal action. A pox on both their houses. Ethics is not the problem, keeping things in proper perspective is the problem.

William said...

Jeffrey, I don't see how we could possibly make a judgment call on whether or not this is deceptive without seeing the picture in question. And if he felt cheated by the first purchase, why in the world would he purchase it again? Consumers vote with their dollars. This is perhaps a consumer but hardly an ethical quandry... if deceptive, then it is unethical. If not than it is not.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

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