NAD Recommends ConAgra Modify or Discontinue ‘Steam, Not Lye’ Claim Challenged by Red Gold

New York, NY – Aug. 12, 2014 – The National Advertising Division has recommended that ConAgra Foods discontinue the claim “We peel our tomatoes with steam, not lye,” or modify the claim to make clear that lye-peeled tomatoes are neither unsafe nor unhealthy.

The claim appeared in television, website, and print advertising by ConAgra for its Hunt’s Tomato Products and was challenged by Red Gold, a competing manufacturer of canned tomato products.

NAD is an investigative unit of the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation. It is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Red Gold took issue with a number of national television commercials that compared Hunts’ steam-peeled tomatoes to its competitor’s lye-peeled tomatoes.

By highlighting other brands’ use of “harsh chemicals” such as “lye” to peel their tomatoes without further explanation, Red Gold asserted that consumers will be falsely led to fear lye-peeled tomato products.

As a preliminary matter, ConAgra asserted that all of the challenged advertising had been discontinued, in most cases prior to ConAgra’s receipt of Red Gold’s challenge. The advertiser noted that it had no plans to continue making the challenged claims in future advertising and noted that it had discontinued using the word “harsh” in reference to lye peeling and had no plans to use this term in future advertising.

The advertiser maintained that the remaining claim – “we peel our tomatoes with steam, not lye” – was truthful and accurate. ConAgra argued that Red Gold failed to identify anything about the context of this claim that would give rise to the impression that tomatoes processed with lye peeling are unsafe to eat. Rather, the advertiser maintained that Red Gold took the position that the mention of “lye,” because it is a chemical, was somehow disparaging.

NAD, however, determined that conveyed the unsupported and inaccurate message that lye-peeled canned tomatoes are unsafe or unhealthful. While this website claim was not couched in the explicitly denigrating context of the now-discontinued commercials, NAD said, NAD noted the strongly negative connotations of the term “lye.” NAD found that by calling out competitors’ use of “lye,” consumers could reasonably take away a false message about the health and safety of the respective products.

NAD noted that no evidence in the record supports the notion that lye-peeled tomatoes are inferior to steam-peeled tomatoes in terms of healthfulness or safety. Indeed, the use of lye in food and food processing has long been generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.

In fact, unlike the many food products that contain lye as an ingredient, NAD noted, Red Gold and other chemically peeled tomatoes simply use lye as a peeling agent which is then thoroughly washed off the tomatoes before canning.

Although ConAgra cited purported environmental concerns regarding certain by-products of the manufacturing process as a basis for calling out its use of steam rather than lye, NAD noted that the message of the challenged advertising is that lye-peeled tomatoes negatively impact consumers’ health or safety—not the environment.

ConAgra Foods, in its advertiser’s statement, said that the company believes “our statement used in past advertising for Hunt’s tomatoes – ‘we peel our tomatoes with steam, not lye’ – is truthful, identifies a meaningful distinction, and is informative for consumers, and we respectfully disagree with NAD’s decision that our prior Hunt’s advertising conveyed a misleading message that lye-peeled tomatoes are unsafe or unhealthful. We value the self-regulatory process, however, and will take the NAD’s recommendations into consideration in future advertising which describes our peeling process.”