Racing to the front of the pack (age)

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced that they have formed a partnership to develop a front-of-package labeling system designed to inform consumers about the nutritional attributes of food and beverage products. As part of the initiative, member companies from both trade associations have committed $50 million to a consumer education campaign about the new front-of-package system. The new labeling effort will be introduced in 2011.

The food industry initiative was launched even as the Food and Drug Administration considered public comments and information and a recently published report by the Institute of Medicine in connection with the agency developing its own voluntary front-of-package nutrition label program.

The F.M.I.-G.M.A. partnership was announced almost a year after the front-of-package Smart Choices nutrition labeling program was suspended. Many food and beverage companies were participating or beginning to participate in the program at the time. The suspension of the program was prompted after both the F.D.A. and the Connecticut attorney general began asking questions regarding the criteria on which the Smart Choices nutrition program was based.

The food industry associations said that in the coming months they will finalize the details of their front-of-package label initiative, including the technical and design elements. In addition, both groups said they will work to provide consumers with information on the nutrients needed to build a nutrient-dense diet and on “shortfall nutrients” that are under-consumed in the diets of most Americans.

“The food and beverage industry is committed to empowering consumers by providing them with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the G.M.A.

David Mackay, president and c.e.o. of the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., added, “This is a landmark step forward in the industry’s commitment to help address the obesity challenge. It represents the most significant change to food labels in the United States in

nearly 20 years. And our commitment to an ambitious consumer education campaign will amplify the impact the labeling change will have in households across the country.”

The announcement by the G.M.A. and the F.M.I. followed by two weeks the release by the Institute of Medicine of the first of two reports on its study of front-of-package nutrition-rating systems and nutrition-related symbols. The I.O.M. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were asked by Congress to conduct the study with the aim of providing guidance on how front-of-package labeling may be used as a nutrition education tool. The study was supported by the F.D.A.

The I.O.M. report concluded it would be useful to display calorie and serving size information on front-of-package labels with the serving information presented in “familiar household measures in order to give context to the amount of food associated with the calories per serving.” The I.O.M. said in addition to notice of calories per serving, a front-of-package label should include information about saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.

“Given current health needs, front-of-package systems may have the greatest benefit if nutrients are limited to those most closely related to prominent health conditions,” the I.O.M. said.

The F.M.I. and the G.M.A. expressed views on what a front-of-package labeling program should include when both associations provided comments to the F.D.A. during the summer on what they thought the agency should consider in developing its front-of-package nutrition labeling system.

The G.M.A. in its submission to the F.D.A. on July 28 said ideally the front-of-package labeling “should help motivate consumers to examine and use the Nutrition Facts Panel” and aim “to help consumers make informed choices about food.” The G.M.A. said labeling should be grounded in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which help consumers follow dietary patterns that may reduce the risk of obesity and chronic disease. The association indicated it would sponsor consumer research around a set of front-of-package nutrition label variables during 2010 and share the findings with the F.D.A.

The F.M.I. provided more detailed recommendations in its comments also submitted on July 28. The F.M.I. said a voluntary front-of-package label should consist of a “simple, fact-based neutral disclosure of nutrition information that is easy for consumers to understand” and noted “to encourage widespread adoption by industry, the program must be affordable and easy for manufacturers to comply with.”

A standardized voluntary front-of-package label should disclose calories, fat, sugar and sodium of an item along with two more optional disclosures, listed at the discretion of the participant, on vitamin, mineral, fiber or protein content, the F.M.I. noted.

“Information on vitamin, mineral, fiber and protein content may be important factors for many consumers in deciding whether to purchase a product,” the F.M.I. said. “If a voluntary front-of-package participant believes that disclosing this information as part of the voluntary front-of-package label will be of benefit to consumers, they should have the flexibility to do so.”

A concern expressed by the F.M.I. centered on printing costs, and the institute suggested the F.D.A. allow participants in the program to print the label in a single color or select the color or colors they wish to use for the label.

“Colors or symbols with negative connotations would make the voluntary front-of-package disclosure akin to a warning label, and F.M.I. believes such a labeling system would create confusion among consumers,” the F.M.I. said. “Studies have shown that labels with negatively connoted colors lead to consumer misinterpretation that they should avoid a product altogether, rather than eating it in moderation or as an occasional treat.”

The F.M.I. added, “Any voluntary front-of-package program should not prohibit the display of other health claims elsewhere on the package. By participating in the voluntary front-of-package program, a manufacturer should not be precluded from making additional health claims outside of the voluntary front-of-package label.”

Initial response to the G.M.A.-F.M.I. front-of-package initiative from members of Congress varied and reflected differences over how much front-of-package labeling programs should be government driven. Representative Fred Upton of Michigan said, “I applaud the food and beverage industry’s voluntary commitment to update their labels and provide easy-to-read, uniform nutrition information on the front of packages. By providing information on key nutrients in a more clear and straightforward way, we will empower families, rather than government, on the frontlines in combating obesity.”

Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said, “The industry’s initiative on front-of-package labeling should not circumvent F.D.A.’s efforts to develop strong guidelines for the information that should be highlighted on these labels. In order to make any progress in combating the major public health problems caused by the obesity epidemic, a front-of-package labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods. An adequate labeling system also should not mislead consumers into believing that some packaged foods contribute to a healthy diet when they contain less healthy nutrient levels.” FBN

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