Incorrectly labeling the packaging for your consumer product (hardware, widget, physical good) can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fines in the US. This doesn’t even include the expenses associated with recalling and repackaging your products. Unfortunately, labeling regulations and laws in the US can be complex, so I’m going to simplify the process for you.
Needless to say, this post does not constitute legal advice.
In the US, there aren’t any federal regulations that apply to all consumer products. The system works through different regulations and standards.
Some examples include:
- Federal Regulations
- State Regulations
- Product Category Regulations
- Substance Regulations
- Safety Standards & Acts
STUDY THE COMPETITORS
The easiest way to get started is to look at your competitors’ packaging. Make sure to study multiple brands and observe the commonalities in labeling.
If they all label ingredients and include a hazard warning, you should too.
While the competitor’s packaging isn’t always the paragon of truth, it does give you a quick way to get started. Once you have a general idea, you can then investigate each labeling requirement in detail.
FAIR PACKAGING AND LABELING ACT (FPLA)
This act applies to “consumer commodities.” As a general rule of thumb, consumer commodities refer to products sold to individuals that can be consumed or used up over time. For a detailed list of what is and isn’t a consumer commodity, check this link.
All products under the “consumer commodities” category have the following labeling requirements:
The identity of the product:
- What is it? Is it a light bulb? Is it beef jerky? What’s inside the packaging?
- Should be easy for the consumer to see and understand
The name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor
- If your business isn’t the one who manufactured the product, and you are only distributing it, then an option is to say: “Distributed by YOUR-COMPANY-NAME”
The net quantity of contents (must include both metric and US customary units)
- In terms of weight or mass, measure, or numerical count
FPLA is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The FDA regulates products that are foods, drugs, cosmetics, or medical equipment.
In addition to the overarching requirements mentioned above, the FDA has specific requirements for different product groups. For instance, cosmetics also need to conform to the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act and the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011.
For details about your product category, check the FDA’s website. To get you started:
As a general rule of thumb, every other consumer commodity that doesn’t fall under FDA regulations is regulated by the FTC. Similarly, in addition to the overarching requirements, product categories often will have specific labeling requirements, so make sure to check on the FTC’s website.
What if your product isn’t a consumer commodity based on the above definition? What then?
A great place to start your research is on the FTC’s website. Just type in your product name or category and search. The FTC’s resources will often guide you in the right direction, even if the specific product isn’t regulated by the FTC.
As an example, if you go to the FTC’s website and search for “textile wool,” you’ll find this result:
Glancing through quickly, it’s clear that the labeling requirements are very unique to this specific product category.
CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION (CPSC)
As discussed, labeling isn’t neatly regulated by just one entity. There are overlaps, so even if you followed everything outlined by the Fair Labeling and Packaging Act, you still need to check the CPSC.
The CPSC is responsible for a wide range of products for the sake of consumer safety, and non-compliance can lead to hefty fines, as well as confiscation and destruction of your inventory by customs.
The CPSC manages safety acts that are responsible for different groups of products. A few examples include:
- Poison Prevention Packaging Act (PPPA)
- Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)
- Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA)
You can see the list of products regulated by CPSC here.
As an example, if you are selling charcoal for BBQ, scroll down to section “C” in the above link. You can see that charcoal is regulated by the FHSA.
Some of the requirements include:
- The name and business address of the manufacturer, packer, distributor, or seller
- The common or usual or chemical name of each hazardous ingredient
- The signal word “Danger” for products that are corrosive, extremely flammable, or highly toxic
- The signal word “Caution” or “Warning” for all other hazardous products
- An affirmative statement of the principal hazard or hazards that the product presents, for example, “Flammable,” “Harmful if Swallowed,” “Causes Burns,” “Vapor Harmful,” etc.
As another example, the CPSC has requirements specifically for children’s products.
- Manufacturer or private labeler name
- Location and date of production of the product
- Detailed information on the manufacturing process, such as a batch or run number, or other identifying characteristics
- Any other information to facilitate ascertaining the specific source of the product
CHECK STATE LAWS
Make sure to check state laws as well. Contact your state business bureau or use Google or FindLaw.com to search for relevant state regulations.
As an example, cosmetic products, in addition to being regulated federally, must comply with the following regulations if you want to sell them in the state of California:
- California Proposition 65 – lead in cosmetics
- California Air Resources Board (CARB)
IF IN DOUBT, OVER LABEL
There aren’t any rules that prohibit you from revealing too much information. If you aren’t sure about a specific requirement, include it if possible as a safety measure.
Of course, you never want to be in a position where you aren’t sure about regulations, and this strategy should be used as a last resort.
CONSULT A PROFESSIONAL
If you want 100% confidence in your labeling, hire a professional. This guide is meant to help the bootstrapping entrepreneur who doesn’t have a lot of cash to get started in navigating the complex labeling laws in the US. If you want certainty and guarantee, the only way to do it is to consult a lawyer on the subject matter.
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