In the most sweeping such action in recent history, the Food and Drug Administration has issued warning letters to 17 food and beverage companies, including three units of Nestlé SA, over what it deems unauthorized health claims on product labeling.

The letters, most of them issued in late February, informed the companies about violations of agency regulations on health claims on labeling, as well as websites or other advertising. In several cases, the letters pointed out that the labels made an unqualified claim of no trans fat for products that exceeded the disclosure trigger for other negative nutrients. If a product goes over a certain per-serving limit in categories like total fat, saturated fat or sodium, any positive claims must be accompanied by a qualifying statement that says “See nutrition panel for information about” the negative nutrients.

Companies receiving the letters, in addition to Nestlé, include Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America, the Gorton’s unit of Nippon Suisan USA, Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. and Ken’s Foods. The letters, addressed to the presidents of the companies or divisions, demand a response within 15 days outlining the company’s plan to correct the violation and prevent similar ones in the future.

Companies and products cited by the FDA include:

• Schwan’s, for “0g trans fat” on cartons of Mrs. Smith’s Classic Coconut Custard Pie. Because the product exceeds the disclosure trigger for total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, the packaging needs the “See nutrition panel for information...” qualifier.

• The Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream unit of Nestlé, for “0g trans fat” on packaging for Nestlé Drumstick Classic Vanilla Fudge and Dreyer's Dibs Bite Sized Ice Cream Snacks Vanilla Ice Cream with Nestlé Crunch Coating. Because both products exceed the disclosure trigger for total fat and saturated fat, the packaging needs the “See nutrition panel for information...” qualifier.

• Gorton’s, for “0 grams trans fat” on Gorton's Beer Batter Crispy Battered Fish Fillets. Because the product exceeds the disclosure trigger for total fat, saturated fat and sodium, the packaging needs the “See nutrition panel for information...” qualifier.

• Beech-Nut, for 15 products, all but one of them in the DHA-PLUS line, for making “no added sugar” and other nutrient claims that are not allowed for foods marketed to children under age 2.

• The Gerber unit of Nestlé, alleging a violation similar to Beech-Nut’s for its Gerber 2nd Foods Carrot and Graduates Fruit Puffs. These include "Healthy as Fresh," an "Excellent Source ... of Vitamin A" and "No Added Sugar," which the FDA says is not allowed for foods marketed to children under 2.

• Nestlé USA, for several Juicy Juice children’s fruit juice products. Juicy Juice Brain Development Fruit Juice Beverage has a “no sugar added” claim, which is not allowed for products intended for children under age 2. Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice Orange Tangerine and Nestle Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice Grape do not, in fact, have orange, tangerine or grape juice as their main ingredients. A disclaimer appears on the front panel, but the FDA deemed it inadequate.

• Ken’s Foods, for Ken’s Healthy Options salad dressings. Three products in this line (Parmesan & Peppercorn, Sweet Vidalia Onion Vinaigrette and Raspberry Walnut) were found to exceed the amount of fat allowed for a food to call itself “healthy.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that advocates on health issues in food, issued a statement lauding the FDA’s action.

“For far too long, manufacturers have exaggerated the healthfulness of their products, or even implied that their products contain special ‘functional’ ingredients that provide drug-like protection against various diseases,” CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade said in the statement. “The previous administration tolerated such shenanigans, but I hope that the party is now over.”

On a related issue, the FDA recently released the results of a poll taken in 2008 showing that consumers are increasingly skeptical of nutrition claims like “low-fat” that show up on the front panels of packages. The survey found that 56% of respondents believed some or none of such claims were accurate.