The food manufacturers' and retailers' associations GMA and FMI had barely finished the joint press conference announcing the details of their new "Nutrition Keys" front-of-pack (FOP) labeling system when consumer watchdogs, legislators and others began registering their criticisms.
The objections focused on accusations that the initiative amounts to a self-serving attempt by the industry to preempt the Food and Drug Administration's initiative to develop a voluntary but agency-regulated FOP system.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who was a vocal opponent of the food industry's Smart Choices labeling program (ultimately abandoned under pressure from the FDA and state attorneys' general), issued a statement saying that the industry's FOP system "is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA's effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels."
The Nutrition Keys system enables food makers to display positive nutrients ("nutrients to be encouraged") like fiber, protein, calcium and some vitamins, in addition to showing calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars per serving. In the first phase of its FOP research for the FDA, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) specifically recommended that labeling include only calories, saturated and trans fats and sodium content, to help consumers zero in on potential health risks and discourage unnecessary fortification of foods for marketing purposes.
"Given that negative and positive nutrients will not be differentiated on the package, there is significant risk that [Nutrition Keys] labels will be ignored," maintained DeLauro. "An adequate labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods, and should not mislead them into believing that some foods are healthy when they clearly are not."
The Nutrition Facts label actually adds a disclosure -- sugar content -- not mentioned by IOM, while forgoing IOM's recommended trans fat disclosure. (Because trans fats are being rapidly removed from CPGs and even restaurant fare, trans fats are increasingly becoming a non-issue on the health front.)
In announcing the FOP system's details yesterday, Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute executives said the industry had proceeded with developing its own system, instead of waiting for the results of IOM's second report and overall recommendations, because of the urgency of helping consumers make informed food decisions. They also stressed that they acted in response to a speech last March by First Lady Michelle Obama calling for clear, consistent food labels as part of her initiatives to address childhood obesity and other nutrition-related health issues.
Last October, when GMA and FMI announced their intention to implement their own new FOP system, Marketing Daily asked what -- if any -- role FDA was playing in development of the associations' system. The associations did not respond, and the FDA demurred, stating only that it "hoped" the industry would 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."
Reporting on yesterday's Nutrition Facts announcement, The New York Times quoted an official who said that the industry pursued its own labeling system after months of talks with the FDA broke down over food manufacturers' "insistence" that they should be able to highlight beneficial nutrients, as well as call out the calories, fat and sodium content.
The Times described the response of the administration and Michelle Obama as "tepid" -- particularly in comparison with the First Lady's enthusiastic response to Walmart's recently announced health initiatives. The retailer said it intends to implement a simple label designed to make it easy to identify healthier foods, as well as reformulate its store brand foods and push national brands to do the same.
The White House's statement recognized the industry for showing leadership through its FOP initiative, but stressed that the FDA "plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts to evaluate whether the label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed."
One FOP system being studied and presumably considered in Washington is a "traffic light" system in which green, yellow and red dots are used -- a system devised in the U.K. but voted down as a mandatory practice by European Parliament last June as a result of heavy resistance by food makers.
"A system with green, yellow and red dots to indicate whether a food has good, middling or poor nutritional quality would probably be a lot more effective than [Nutrition Keys]," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement following yesterday's industry announcement. "Alternately, numerical ratings from -100 to +100 or 0 to 10 would allow people to easily compare one brand of food to another."
In a column in The Atlantic following the Nutrition Keys announcement, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, maintained that food producers "especially do not want" the FDA to impose a traffic-light system, because it discourages consumers "from buying anything labeled red."