Front-of-package peril and potential

by Jeff Gelski
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CHICAGO — Food and beverage manufacturers should know both opportunity and risk exist when making claims on the front of packages, according to speakers at Wellness 10 presented by the Institute of Food Technologists March 24-25 in Chicago. Some claims may draw unwanted attention from a more active Food and Drug Administration while too many claims may clutter the front of a package and confuse consumers.

Tony Pavel, a partner with K&L Gates L.P., spoke about a more active F.D.A. in his March 25 presentation.

“You’ve got a lawyer in the morning, and a lawyer with bad news,” he told the audience. “Sorry.”

Mr. Pavel said the warning letters recently sent to 17 companies about claims on the front of packages show how the F.D.A. is taking a harder line into claims. The F.D.A. has wide latitude in accusing companies of misbranding, Mr. Pavel said.

The warning letters covered such issues as nutrient content claims on food for infants, trans-fat claims for products actually high in saturated fats, food products claiming to treat or mitigate diseases, and juice products with multiple ingredients being labeled as single juice products. In the letters the F.D.A. expressed concern that label claims are not doing enough to help consumers distinguish healthy food choices from less healthy choices.

“Balance is a key issue that the agency is going after,” Mr. Pavel said.

He said he found a ray of hope in a warning letter sent to Nestle U.S.A. about the company’s Juicy Juice Brain Development fruit juice beverage. The F.D.A. warned that a nutrient content claim may not be made for a food intended for use by infants and children less than 2 years of age.

Mr. Pavel said the F.D.A. said nothing about the company using Brain Development in the product’s name, which he considered a structure/function claim. The F.D.A. thus did not go after a structure/function claim.

“Companies may have a little bit of breathing room,” he said.

Mr. Pavel said industry may expect more F.D.A. enforcement in the future since Margaret A. Hamburg, the new F.D.A. commissioner, has a public health background, as does Joshua M. Sharfstein, the new F.D.A. principal deputy commissioner.

“There is a new sheriff in town,” Mr. Pavel said.

Whether or not it attracts F.D.A. attention, too much information on the front of a package may fail to catch consumers’ attention, said Mark Payne, president and head of innovation for the consulting company Fahrenheit 212.

“It’s a cluttered world and a cluttered supermarket,” he said.

Mr. Payne said while an industry premise says educating consumers is the right thing to do, the population has become more obese in recent years even with the increasing amount of education in front-of-package labeling.

“There is an excess of information out there today,” he said. “Education is an important piece of the answer, but at the end of the day it is the simple concepts. The simple concepts always win.”

He said presenting how a product is made in a different, new way may be a simple concept. Successful examples, he said, were Dreyer’s/Edy’s slow-churned ice cream, Baked! Lay’s chips and Kentucky Grilled Chicken.

Mr. Payne said consumers may be divided into “white belts” and “black belts.” While “black belts” may be more informed, “white belts” may not read the fine print on a product.

“How you make life easier for the ‘white belts’ has got to be the next big frontier,” he said.

One Wellness 10 presentation involved five Chicago-area mothers and showed how fiber may be a successful, simple claim. The mothers recognized Quaker high-fiber oatmeal and General Mills’ Fiber One bars in the presentation led by Lu Ann Williams, head of research for Innova Market Insights. Yet none of the mothers had heard of prebiotics, which refers to a digestion benefit of many fibers. The mothers had heard of probiotics, but they were not aware probiotics were healthy bacteria.

The number of new products with fiber claims introduced in the past two years has remained static, but static is actually a good sign for a category during a recession, said Krista Farron, lead innovation analyst for Mintel International. She said only about 10% of recently launched products with fiber explicitly mention healthy digestion in claims.

Products with both fiber claims and probiotic claims have had success at retail, according to The Nielsen Co. statistics covering U.S. food stores with $2 million and more in sales, excluding supercenters. Sales of products with fiber claims reached $4,229,980,273 in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 20, 2010, which marked an 11% increase from the previous 52-week period. Sales of products with probiotic claims rose 7% to $1,240,308,525 in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 20, 2010.

General Mills opens up to innovation

CHICAGO — Mike Antinone, senior R.&D. manager, Open Innovation, for General Mills, Inc., shared a 2005 company response to a technology broker to show how far General Mills has come in changing its innovation policies. The response read, “It is General Mills policy not to review, accept or fund any submitted idea from outside the company.”

The policy no longer exists. Minneapolis-based General Mills in 2010 searches for innovation and new product ideas through several sources, as evidenced by its G-WIN (Worldwide Innovation Network). Dr. Antinone gave tips on the General Mills strategy in his presentation “Connected Innovation: The Power of Many” March 24 in Chicago at Wellness 10 presented by the Institute of Food Technologists.

Dr. Antinone said General Mills seeks innovation and answers to problems in three ways: internal collaboration, collaboration with trusted partners and collaboration with new partners. Internally, General Mills holds an annual two-day technical conference. Also, under a TechConnect electronic collaboration, a General Mills employee may post a challenge or need. Anybody within the company may respond.

In collaborating with trusted partners, including suppliers, General Mills has become more specific about presenting its needs. The company did not do so in the past for fear of giving away secrets. Dr. Antinone used rocks in an analogy, saying that General Mills would ask for a rock instead of specifying the company wanted a small purple rock. A trusted partner may have responded with a big, yellow rock.

“Let’s just tell them we want a small, purple rock,” Dr. Antinone said of company strategy today.

Collaborating with new partners may involve “finding smart people who already are doing what you want to do,” Dr. Antinone said. He gave the real-life example of General Mills finding a Canadian manufacturer that produced a small cheese and spinach item. General Mills partnered with the company and launched Pillsbury Savorings, a line of adult appetizers.

General Mills has forsaken some of its secrecy. For example, the company more openly seeks ways to reduce sodium in its Progresso brand, a strategy that should not be a surprise anyway to competing companies in the soup category.

General Mills took internal and external approaches in launching a healthy Progresso product, Dr. Antinone said. Internally, General Mills employees working for the Yoplait yogurt brand recommended using the word “light” in the soup product title. Externally, General Mills partnered with Weight Watchers for its Progresso Light soup.

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