Thursday, December 18, 2014

Snap, crackle - FTC pops Kellogg over Rice Krispies claims

A year after it agreed to settle FTC allegations that it was making questionable claims about the health benefits of Frosted Mini-Wheats, Kellogg agreed to broader restrictions on its ads. The culprit this time: claims about the immunity benefits of Rice Krispies.

Snap, crackle - FTC pops Kellogg over Rice Krispies claims

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission came down on Kellogg Co. for questionable claims that its Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal was  "clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%."  To settle the agency's allegations, the FTC says, Kellogg agreed to refrain from claims "about the benefits to cognitive health, process, or function provided by any cereal or any morning food or snack food unless the claims were true and substantiated."

"Unless the claims were true and substantiated" seems pretty straightforward, but apparently there was still some confusion.  Today, the FTC announced a new settlement, resolving a probe into what it calls "questionable immunity-related claims for Rice Krispies cereal."

In its announcement, the FTC said:

On product packaging, Kellogg claimed that Rice Krispies cereal "now helps support your child’s immunity," with "25 percent Daily Value of Antioxidants and Nutrients – Vitamins A, B, C, and E." The back of the cereal box stated that "Kellogg’s Rice Krispies has been improved to include antioxidants and nutrients that your family needs to help them stay healthy."

The FTC says the original settlement barred the breakfast-food maker "from making claims about the benefits to cognitive health, process, or function provided by any cereal or any morning food or snack food unless the claims were true and substantiated." The new agreement sets a higher bar, prohibiting the company "from making claims about any health benefit of any food unless the claims are backed by scientific evidence and not misleading." The questionable claims also involved Multi-grain Krispies cereal, Frosted Krispies cereal, and Cocoa Krispies cereal.

Said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz:

We expect more from a great American company than making dubious claims – not once, but twice – that its cereals improve children’s health. Next time, Kellogg needs to stop and think twice about the claims it's making before rolling out a new ad campaign, so parents can make the best choices for their children.

In  a concurring opinion filed along with the order, Leibowitz made clear that he was especially irked by the timing of the new ad campaign:

What is particularly disconcerting to us is that at the same time that Kellogg was making promises to the Commission regarding Frosted Mini-Wheats, the company was preparing to make problematic claims about Rice Krispies.

The company's response to the FTC's announcement, via email from spokeswoman Kris Charles:

Kellogg Company has a long history of responsible advertising. We stand behind the validity of our product claims and research, so we agreed to an order that covers those claims. We believe that the revisions to the existing consent agreement satisfied any remaining concerns.

If you want to know more, the FTC offers a link to the documents in last year's case - including video clips - here.

One of the commercials shows how the lawyers presumably thought the company was protecting itself. As the announcer made the "improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20%" claim, the on-screen fine print elaborated crucially on the "compared to what?" question:

Based upon independent clinical research, kids who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal for breakfast had up to 18% better attentiveness three hours after breakfast than kids who ate no breakfast.

Compared to "kids who ate no breakfast" is not exactly a high standard.

Maybe the Kellogg lawyers need to eat more Mini-Wheats. I hear they make you more attentive.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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