The Food and Drug Administration has announced that it is analyzing nutritional information systems developed by food manufacturers "that appear to be misleading."
In its "guidance for industry" letter about front-of-package (FOP) labeling, the FDA also said that it is developing a proposed regulation that would define the nutritional criteria that would have to be met by manufacturers making FOP or shelf-label claims about the nutritional quality of a food, whether the claim is made in text or with symbols.
"FDA's intent is to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP nutrition labeling must be based," wrote Barbara O. Schneeman, director of the Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Schneeman stated that the agency is assessing the criteria established by food manufacturers for such symbols and comparing them to the FDA's regulatory criteria. "It is important to note that nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling, while currently voluntary, is subject to the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that prohibit false or misleading claims and restrict nutrient content claims to those defined in FDA regulations," she wrote. "We will consider enforcement actions against clear violations of these established labeling requirements."
She stressed that clear labeling that is "consistent with and linked to the required Nutrition Facts panel" can help educate consumers, but given that the agency has found that FOP nutritional labeling makes people less likely to check the Nutrition Facts label, it is "essential" that FOP and shelf labeling systems are nutritionally sound and not false or misleading.
Schneeman indicated that the agency wants to explore the potential of an approach similar to that now used in the U.K., in which the government set criteria for use of FOP labeling and retailers took the initiative to implement the voluntary labeling system in their stores. The U.K.'s "Multiple Nutrient Traffic Light System," which uses red, amber and green color codes to alert consumers to high, medium and low nutritional rankings for foods, is one that has been recommended as a model by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Speaking in a telephone press conference, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg specifically pointed out that some of the foods bearing the "Smart Choices" checkmark logo, based on a nutritional criteria system created by General Mills, Kraft Foods, Kellogg and other manufacturers, are nearly half sugar. She also likened the variety of systems and logos in the marketplace to a "tower of Babel." Grocery stores and trade and health organizations have also created their own nutritional labeling systems.
CSPI petitioned the FDA to implement a national FOP labeling system in 2006, and more recently asked Congress to fund Institute of Medicine research. Following the FDA's announcement, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson issued a statement charging that "foods like General Mills' Cocoa Puffs or Kellogg's Froot Loops belong more in our 'food porn' category than a better-for-you category."
CSPI is also critical of most other FOP systems, including the American Heart Association's program, which Jacobson describes as "well-intentioned" but "flawed" because its heart-check logo appears on a number of "relatively poor dietary choices."
"Ideally, the end result of FDA's initiative, and the parallel Institute of Medicine study, will be one national, mandatory system that will truly help consumers choose healthier diets," Jacobson stated.
Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) President/CEO Pamela G. Bailey issued a response to the FDA's letter stating that GMA members "look forward to working with the FDA to determine what nutrition information is most useful in providing consumers with the tools they need to help them build a healthful diet."
The statement, like others released by GMA in response to FDA actions or consumer advocacy group charges, also pointed out that the food and beverage industry has "already introduced or reformulated over 10,000 products to reduce calories, sugar, sodium, fat and trans fat or to enhance their nutritional profile, such as with the addition of whole grains or minerals."
The industry "is committed to providing consumers with the products and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle," Bailey stressed.
In other food industry news, the Institute of Medicine released its official report on school meals, which recommends that all groups involved, including food manufacturers, cooperate to ensure that school meals are "much more consistent with "Dietary Guidelines for Americans."