What TikTok’s pink sauce can teach us about buying food online

Key takeaways

  • TikTok’s viral Pink Sauce has been sold across the country for $20 a bottle.
  • Complaints have arisen about both food quality and inaccuracies found on food labels, calling into question whether we should be buying food online from small businesses.
  • The FDA dictates a set of rules that companies must adhere to when selling food across state lines.

If you keep up with TikTok trends, you probably already know about the viral Pink Sauce and its controversy. If not, here’s an overview:

  • A chef based in Miami, Florida, created what she calls Pink Sauce, a sauce made from sunflower seed oil, honey, chili, garlic and dragon fruit.
  • The sauce went viral on TikTok, leading to an online retail business.
  • Customers complained about damaged packaging and rancid batches of sauce.
  • The nutrition declaration incorrectly stated that one bottle contained over 400 servings.
  • While the food label says the product contains milk, the packaging did not require refrigeration or have an expiration date, posing a risk of foodborne illness.

Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating the product. If the producer, known as Chef Pī, is found guilty of misbranding, or if her product is a direct cause of someone becoming ill, she could be subject to legal sanctions.

In the end, Chef P’s pink sauce probably got too big too fast, and she may have crossed some rules.

“[Pink Sauce] highlights the need to be aware of where our food comes from and the fact that safety regulations are in place for a reason,” Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian and Hormonally Yours podcast host, told Verywell.

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If you want to buy a food online, here’s how regulation should work and what you should know as a consumer.

Rules apply when selling food across state lines

Manufacturers of dressings and condiments require FDA food facility registration. If a person wants to start any kind of food business—even just for spices—they face a number of requirements, especially if they plan to sell beyond their own state’s borders.

However, there are many exceptions. If you participate in a bake sale, you do not have to comply with FDA regulations. Farmers markets are also exempt.

Food trucks and restaurants also do not have to register their meals or ingredients. These retail food businesses are regulated by state and local authorities, not the FDA.

Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) regulations require that foods offered for sale or introduced into interstate commerce (such as Pink Sauce) be produced under safe and sanitary conditions. All food sold between states must bear a food label.

Food manufacturers are responsible for developing these labels without being misleading. Correct labelling, including nutrition labeling and labeling for important food allergens, is required for most prepared foods.

“Clearly, the FDA is not in a position to check all food labels for accuracy before they are sold,” Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, registered dietitian and co-founder of the wellness company MIJA told Verywell. As such, it is up to the manufacturer to provide accurate information.

The FDA will routinely inspect manufacturers or processors to verify compliance with applicable regulations. If they find something wrong, they can remove products from the market. Consequences for offenders can range from a simple warning letter to criminal prosecution.

How to safely buy food online

If you find a baked good on Etsy that you want to try, or your favorite Instagrammer is selling their homemade BBQ sauce, how do you know if it’s safe to consume?

“If you’re buying food from an independent seller on social media or Etsy, first see if the product has an actual website that can reveal the ingredients listed in the product and if there’s any third-party testing or verification,” Koszyk advised .

You can also ask the manufacturer if a food grade label is available or if the facility where the product was developed is registered with the FDA. Just keep in mind that farms, retail food businesses and restaurants are exempt from food facility registration requirements.

Many online grocery stores will list licenses in their descriptions if available.

For perishable items, please confirm that the product you are purchasing is shipped in a climate-controlled method, such as to use packaging containing dry ice.

Ultimately, if you buy a food that feels bad, trust your gut and throw it away.

“Participating in a trend is not worth the risk of indigestion or foodborne infection,” Azzaro said.

What this means for you

When buying food online, make sure the food label works correctly, if there is one. Look for signs of care from the manufacturer, such as transparency about where and how the product is made or how the product will be shipped.