By Allergen Bureau

The ‘Wild West’: Online food sales dodge U.S. labelling requirements

The lead author of new research into labelling of food sold online says their study shows the online food shopping environment is “a bit of a Wild West”. While product information displayed by online food retailers was found to be incomplete and inconsistent, U.S. laws do not currently mandate the same labelling as required for food products sold in brick-and-mortar stores.

From 2019 to 2020, online grocery sales in the U.S. tripled from 3.4 per cent to 10.2 per cent of total grocery sales. With current trends, online sales are projected to reach 21.5 per cent of total sales by 2025. Yet the research led by the NYU School of Global Public Health found information required to be provided to consumers in conventional grocery stores was only present on 36.5 per cent of the online grocery items surveyed.

According to the researchers, while U.S. law requires nutrition facts, allergen information, and ingredient lists to appear on the physical packaging of food products, these regulations do not currently extend to online retailers. As a result, crucial health and safety information may not be available to online grocery shoppers.

Ten major products across nine major online grocery retailers were included in the study, with a focus on bread, cereals, and drinks. The researchers also reviewed the federal government’s legal authorities and limitations for requiring online food retailers to disclose product information that is mandated for packaged foods sold in-store.

On the foods surveyed, product information was not included or illegible more than 60 percent of the time across the online products and retailers. Among other shortcomings, allergen information was only disclosed on 11.4 per cent of relevant food products sold online.

The researchers urge the federal government to require that online food retailers disclose important nutrition and allergen information to support consumer health and informed decision-making.

A media release about the research findings can be found on the New York University website.

Reference: Pomeranz et al. 2022. Public Health Nutrition. DOI: 10.1017/S1368980021004638. This publication is available with Open Access.