F.D.A. scrutinizing front-of-package labels

by Keith Nunes
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WASHINGTON — In a letter to industry on Oct. 20, the Food and Drug Administration outlined its guidance on the plethora of front-of-package symbols and nutrition scores being used by food processors and retailers to communicate the nutritional quality of foods and beverages. Noting that the F.D.A.’s research shows that with the front-of-package labeling consumers are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts Panel, the agency said it is "essential both the criteria and symbols used in the front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed and help consumers make informed, healthy food choices."

"Some are questioning whether they (front-of-package symbols) are marketing or health-oriented," said Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the F.D.A.

The agency is analyzing front-of-package labels that appear to be misleading and also is looking for symbols that may be considered nutrient content claims.

To ensure consumers are not confused or misled by front-of-package symbols, the F.D.A. said it is developing a proposed regulation to define the nutritional criteria that would have to be met by food companies making front-of-package claims about a product’s nutritional quality.

"We want to work with the food industry — retailers and manufacturers alike — as well as nutrition and design experts, and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related F.O.P. and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health," the agency said in the guidance letter.

Citing recent news stories about the Smart Choices front-of-package labeling program as a reason for the new initiative, the F.D.A. pointed to the traffic-light system used in the United Kingdom as a positive example of a voluntary program that provides consumers with easy-to-understand nutrition information that is based on common criteria.

"The U.K. system is the program that is the most talked about and the deepest as far as available information," Ms. Hamburg said.

She added the F.D.A. is launching a consumer research program to assess how the front-of-package symbols are being used by consumers and how they are being perceived.

F.D.A. follows up

In December 2008, the F.D.A. initially sent a "Dear Manufacturer" letter to food companies emphasizing to food processors and distributors current regulatory schemes and requirements with regard to nutrition claims. The letter came a little more than a month after several food companies agreed to use the Smart Choices program on products beginning next year.

The F.D.A. said it had been following the emergence of front-of-package symbols in the marketplace and understood they are intended to assist consumer choice by providing simplified information on the nutritional attributes of food. With that in mind, the administration in its letter reminded food processors of the need to consider the wording of any potential claims or symbols.

Asking additional questions

Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal on Oct. 15 launched an investigation into the consumer research and selection criteria driving the Smart Choices labeling program that features products from several major food manufacturers, including The Kellogg Co., PepsiCo, Inc., and General Mills, Inc.

"These so-called Smart Choices seem nutritionally suspect — and the label potentially misleading," Mr. Blumenthal said. "The Smart Choices label adorns sugar-laden cereals appealing to children, but not many healthier breakfast choices. Our investigation asks what objective scientific standards, research or factual evidence justify labeling such products as ‘smart.’

"Our question is: explain the smart in Smart Choices. What is so smart about mayonnaise, Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs? Sugar-coated cereals may be nutritionally sounder than some fast food — but hardly smart. Such wholesale health claims may mislead consumers into malnutrition. Busy moms and dads deserve truth in labeling — particularly when their children’s health is at stake."

Responding to Mr. Blumenthal’s letter requesting information on the Smart Choices program, Mike Hughes, chair of the Smart Choices program, said the organization is "fully cooperating" and "taking this opportunity" to provide information on the program.

"The Smart Choices program was developed during an open and lengthy collaborative process that included some of the most experienced and accomplished professionals in nutrition science," Mr. Hughes said. "The program is based on the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and aligns with the National Academy of Sciences Dietary Reference Intakes. It is designed to include foods in every aisle of the supermarket, from fresh to packaged foods.

"We believe that by developing consistent criteria for better choices among hundreds of products across the supermarket, we are taking an important step in the right direction to help consumers."

Approximately 500 products feature the Smart Choices logo. By May 2010, that number is expected to grow to more than 1,200, according to estimates.

The program includes a symbol that identifies more nutritious choices within specific product categories and provides calorie information that identifies calories per serving and servings per container on front-of-pack. The goal of the program is to help consumers stay within their daily calorie needs.

The Keystone Center, Keystone, Colo., a non-profit organization, helped develop the program beginning with a meeting in January 2007. This past June, NSF International and the American Society for Nutrition announced they were working together to administer the Smart Choices program by providing both scientific and technical expertise to a board of directors comprised of non-profit, scientific and industry representatives.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 27, 2009, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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