IOM: Food Needs New, Federal FOP Labeling System

IOMIn a development sure to generate more rounds of controversy and friction between federal agencies and the food/beverage industry, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is recommending that the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture develop a single, standard front-of-package (FOP) nutritional labeling system that would replace all other FOP systems out there –- including the “Facts Up Front” system already being implemented by the food/beverage industry.

Moreover, this second or Phase II report from the IOM recommends that if a new federal system is created, it should be mandatory, with the new labeling on all grocery products in all retail outlets.

IOM’s recommended system is significantly different than the industry’s system. One key difference is that the label would show evaluations of just five nutrients (calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugars). The industry’s FOP system, in contrast, includes calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving, the daily value percentages for saturated fat and sodium, plus up to two icons showing “nutrients to be encouraged,” such as fiber, protein, calcium and vitamins.



A particularly critical IOM recommendation -- the one that the industry most sought to avoid by creating its own FOP system -- is that the labeling employ a point-based system and symbols specifically designed to convey a product’s nutritional ratings or “healthfulness” at a glance. While IOM said that regulators and industry stakeholders would need to work out the specifics of the format, it spelled out the components that its research indicates would ensure an effective system.

Basically, the recommendation is that stars or some other graphic symbol be used to visually show whether a given product qualifies for one, two or three points, based on its levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugars, with calories in a common household-size serving also boldly displayed. (The format accompanying this article was used as an illustrative example by the IOM.) Products exceeding specified limits for even one of these components would not be eligible to show any points or “stars.”

IOM specifically stated that it is recommending a “fundamental shift in strategy” -- a “move away from systems that mostly provide nutrition information without clear guidance about healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier food choices through simplicity, visual clarity and the ability to convey meaning without written information. An FOP system should be standardized and it also should motivate food and beverage companies to reformulate their products to be healthier and encourage food retailers to prominently display products that meet this standard.”

IOM stressed that a labeling system would need to be consistent with current nutrition labeling requirements, and integrated with the Nutrition Facts Panel. It also said that the system created would need to be tested, and once implemented should be regularly monitored and evaluated to “continually improve its success in directing consumers’ food purchases toward healthier choices.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which launched Facts Up Front with the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), immediately issued a response. Its statement stressed that while the IOM’s report “adds a perspective to the national dialogue” about FOP labeling, the industry’s FOP system is a “real-world” program that “delivers real value to real consumers in real time.”

GMA added: “The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat. That is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.”

Those weighing in on the “pro” side included the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

“The IOM’s proposal is far preferable to the voluntary ‘Facts Up Front’ labeling program that the grocery industry is rushing to market,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement. “The industry hopes to preempt more consumer-friendly requirements by the FDA. The industry’s complex scheme requires consumers to consider the amounts of calories and four to six nutrients, without any numerical score or useful symbols to convey a food’s nutritional value.

“It is worth noting that the IOM’s approach, like all of the systems yet developed, still has holes that the FDA would have to address,” Jacobson added. “For instance, it gives no consideration to foods’ vitamin, mineral, fiber, or protein content.  Also, white bread, whole wheat bread, broccoli, artificially sweetened soft drinks, and artificially colored and flavored diet Jell-O would all have top scores of 3. Still, the FDA should promptly assign a task force to develop a mandatory front-of-package labeling regulation based on the IOM’s advice.”

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, weighed in on her “Food Politics” blog. Referring to the IOM’s recommended points/symbols-based system, she said: “I’m guessing that anything this clear and understandable will elicit storms of protest” from the food industry.

Nestle actually considers the basic concept of FOP labels to be “an inherently bad idea” because, she maintains, the labels are a “tool for selling, not buying” and “make processed foods look healthier, whether or not they really are.”

However, she also wrote that the IOM committee “did the best it could,” given the flaw in the basic concept of FOP, “strong industry marketing pressures to retain front-of-pack labels,” and “the lack of an option to remove them all together.”

Still, Nestle stressed, the IOM proposal is a “huge improvement over what food companies are now doing,” and “courageous” because its system would “make it so easy to distinguish products that qualify for the various point levels.”

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