Friday, April 12, 1996
Warning: Olestra label to the point

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Procter & Gamble, soap maker to the world, should clean up its act.

Protesting the warning labels for olestra is soiling the company's ''99 44 - 100% pure'' image. It's making this genius of marketing look stupid.

When they finally appear in stores, snacks made with olestra - P&G's fake-fat invention - will carry this label:

''Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.''

It's not great literature. Or very appetizing. But, it's to the point without being too explicit.

That warning has the Food and Drug Administration's seal of approval. But not P&G's.

The hometown company with the worldwide reach protested the warning's wording in a letter sent to the FDA on April 1. Since P&G is not known for possessing a keenly developed sense of humor, this was no April Fool's prank.

The letter cited a P&G study. Forty-five percent of 1,800 people surveyed saw the label, boxed-in by black lines, and decided it was not safe to eat olestra. The company suggested the black lines be dropped and the warning be reworked to read:

''Olestra may cause intestinal discomfort or a laxative effect.''

That piece of prose won't wind up in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations either. But even worse, the words ''intestinal discomfort'' and ''a laxative effect'' reek of sanitized political correctness, murky meanings and lawyer-speak.

Those are three ingredients you don't want on the side of a bag of chips. ''Warning labels - because they're basically just good common sense - should be very clear in their message,'' says James Kellaris, UC associate professor of marketing.

Clarity is necessary because of warning-label overload. ''The shopping environment is cluttered with these things,'' the marketing professor says. ''Consumers can't begin to process all the information on them.''

It's not like the FDA's label warned: ''Olestra may make your innards feel like you washed down a sack of sliders from White Castle with a six-pack of suds.''

The Feds' version was positively charming compared to the warning proposed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That's the taste-bud police whose research regularly finds that everything that tastes good (movie popcorn, Mexican food) is bad for you. The center envisioned these words on a box of cookies with fake fat:

''Olestra can cause diarrhea, loose stools, fecal urgency, nausea, gas . . . underwear staining and leakage, greasy bowel movements and oil in toilet.''

Care for another chip dipped in olestra, my dear? Bon appetit!

The center's warning - which stopped short of requiring anything with olestra in it to carry the skull and crossbones - is never going to fly. Just reading it is enough to send you lurching to the bathroom.

Warning labels are a necessary evil of doing business in a land of laws. Professor Kellaris calls them: ''Artifacts of an overly litigious society.''

Translation: People do stupid things with products. When something goes wrong, they don't blame themselves. They sue. Companies slap on user-beware stickers to cover their bottom lines.

That's why the tag on my hair dryer warns: ''Do not use while bathing.''

Down in my basement, a heat gun that melts old paint at 830 degrees has an owner's manual with this safety rule: ''Do not use this tool as a hair dryer.''

Even my car's side-view mirror carries a warning label: ''Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.''

No kidding.

Those warnings haven't stopped me from driving, peeling paint or drying my hair - but not with that heat gun.

Beer cans, wine bottles and packs of cigarettes also carry warning labels. The national per capita consumption of alcohol stands at 2.3 gallons a year. Labels haven't stopped 46.8 million Americans from smoking.

P&G would be well advised to drop its request for a change in olestra's labeling. Warning labels are meant to be seen. But not necessarily heeded.