Industry To Implement Own Package Label System
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) have formally announced that they are developing a new, front-of-package (FOP) labeling system, which will begin to appear on packaging early next year.
The food/beverage-makers' and food retailers' associations said they are still finalizing the details of the FOP program, as they "continue to consult stakeholders." They did not provide specifics, other than indicating that FOP labeling would include information on "calories and other nutrients to limit," as well as on nutrients "needed to build a 'nutrient-dense' diet and on 'shortfall nutrients' that are under-consumed in the diets of most Americans."
The associations also said that members had committed to investing $50 million in a consumer awareness-building, educational campaign supporting the new label. The campaign, to launch next year, will be aimed at parents who are primary household shoppers.
David Mackay, president/CEO of Kellogg Company, described the initiative as "a landmark step forward in the industry's commitment to help address the obesity challenge" and "the most significant change to food labels in the United States in nearly 20 years."
The GMA/FMI announcement comes two weeks after an Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee released its report on Phase I of its FOP labeling study, outlining its initial recommendations for core FOP nutrient disclosures and assessment of 20 FOP systems currently in the marketplace.
The report concluded that FOP labeling should disclose calories, serving size, saturated fats, trans fats and sodium content information, as these address "the most pressing diet-related health concerns and challenges" for consumer nutrition education and compliance purposes.
The committee also concluded that given space limitations, it is not necessary to include FOP disclosure of information such as total fat, cholesterol, total carbohydrates and total or added sugars -- nor beneficial nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. These appear in the existing mandatory Nutrition Facts panel on labels, and while the report noted that monitoring consumption of these nutrients is important to a healthful diet, it defined the core role of a standardized FOP system as calling out nutritional content that can contribute to chronic disease risk and is currently unlikely to appear on front labels.
The researchers said that including too much information, such as beneficial nutrients, could result in consumer confusion and encourage the addition of unnecessary nutrient fortifications in food/beverage products.
In Phase II of its study, the IOM committee will review research on how consumers understand and use different types of nutritional information and issue a second report recommending ways to optimize the usefulness of the FOP nutrition rating systems and symbols.
That report will include the committee's assessment of the pros and cons of having a single, standardized front-label food guidance system that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
FDA officials have indicated that any standardized system the agency proposes would be voluntary, although food/beverage makers that participate would be required to comply with its specifics.
Both GMA and the FDA have previously indicated that they are working together to address FOP labeling. After the IOM Phase I report was released in mid October, GMA VP Scott Faber told The New York Times that GMA had been in discussions with the FDA as the agency develops recommendations.
What, if any, role is the FDA is playing in terms of the associations' development and implementation of their new label system? GMA/FMI had not responded to Marketing Daily as of publication time.
FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey supplied the following response by email: "The Administration shares the goal of having a uniform front-of-pack nutrition label on all food and beverage products. As the details get worked through, our hope is that the industry will develop a label that aids in consumer understanding and helps parents and other shoppers easily identify and select products that contribute to a healthy diet."
Asked for comment on the announcement, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of books, including Food Politics and Safe Food, emailed in response: "There can only be one reason GMA and FMI are doing this: to head off FDA action on front-of-package labels. The Institute of Medicine has just filed a report recommending that FOP labels list calories, sodium, trans fat and saturated fat. These are all negatives.
"Packaged food companies want to list positives like vitamins and fiber, so they can advertise the products as healthy [regardless of salt, sugar and fat content]. This action is a flagrant attempt to undermine the FDA's regulatory authority over FOP symbols, and it is telling that the announcement comes so soon after the IOM report and gives no details on what, exactly, they plan to do.
"This self-serving proposal is all the evidence anyone needs to demonstrate the need for mandatory FOP standards, not voluntary," Nestle continued. "The FDA should not take this lightly and should start working on mandatory standards."
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of consumer nutrition activist group The Center for Science in the Public Interest, released a statement saying that CSPI hopes this "next attempt" by the food industry to develop a FOP labeling system proves better that the industry's "Smart Choices" FOP system.
Smart Choices was suspended last October after the FDA announced it was scrutinizing FOP systems and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted that the food manufacturer-funded program was allowing products whose content is nearly half sugar, such as Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs, to bear the Smart Choices checkmark icon.
"A credible system would show a food's calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar content on package fronts," Jacobson said in his statement. "Such a system must also indicate to consumers whether those values are low, medium, or high. Front-of-package labeling should make the healthiest foods easy to spot, and the less healthy foods easy to avoid. No other system deserves the blessing of the government or consumers."