Getting 'Fresh'

WHEN the federal regulators swoop down on some company to castigate it for labeling a product in a way deemed confusing to consumers, the typical response is either gratitude that the government is doing its job - or disgust that overzealous bureaucrats are tending toward "big brotherism." But in the instance of "fresh" as applied to orange juice, it's hard to say which brother is bigger.

In ordering the makers of "Citrus Hill Fresh Choice" to cease and desist, the federal Food and Drug Administration pointed out that it had, since 1969, prohibited use of the word "fresh" to describe a juice made from concentrate.

FDA commissioner David Kessler was out to see that the public got "fresh" when it read "fresh."

The manufacturer, giant Procter & Gamble, said it had evidence that shoppers were not deceived by that word.

Its disputed consumer survey data aside, the company was probably right. No shopper more than half awake could fail to note the difference between the price of reconstituted Citrus Hill and the premium-priced fresh-squeezed varieties. And then there's the matter of taste.

Still, Procter & Gamble's defense was diluted. Its packaging semantics were clearly geared to lure in the unwary - the big, bold "Fresh Choice," the liltingly italic "pure squeezed 100% orange juice," the compactly lettered "from concentrate."

After the FDA seized a few thousand half-gallons of Citrus Hill in Minnesota to make its point, the company backed down. Its product will soon become simply "Citrus Hill," minus "fresh" embellishments.

Other companies, most without the heft of Procter & Gamble, must be quaking. Now that a newly invigorated FDA, leading a Bush administration resurgence of regulation, has cracked down on "fresh," can "natural" or "wholesome" be far behind?

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