Government Considers Front-of-Pack Label Changes

November 14, 2011
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The battle for front-of-pack real estate continues as an Institute of Medicine committee recommends a simple label system that’s consistent.

Remember the “Smart Choices” labeling in 2009? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Washington, D.C., pulled that campaign-which was designed to steer consumers to supposedly nutritional products- after it started showing up on boxes of sugar-loaded cereal. Congress responded by requesting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, and Institute of Medicine (IOM), Washington, D.C., conduct a two-phase study to look at front-of-package nutrition labeling.

Phase one concluded that a rating system based on a product’s calories, saturated fat, trans-fat and sodium content would benefit consumers. Food manufacturers responded immediately.

“Different companies have jumped in and sort of leap-frogged over the government,” says Ellen Schuster, a University of Missouri Extension associate state human environmental sciences specialist. “Food companies have been coming up with all these different systems, but they’re not consistent and, as you might imagine, they’re setting up their own criteria.”

The second phase of the study added sugar to the list and recommended a rating system similar to the Energy Star program for appliances. The IOM committee suggested that calories in a product, in common cooking measurements, should figure prominently on the label. The group also recommended standardizing the system in favor of one standard.

The two-year study is only the beginning of a process, and the FDA will need to decide if it will act on those recommendations. “Once they get ready to be very specific about the criteria, then it goes to the Federal Register for a public comment period,” adds Schuster. “It’s an opportunity for everybody to say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a flaw in what you’ve come up with,’ or ‘I have a better idea,’ or ‘Have you thought of this?’”

Implementation by food manufacturers, if finalized, will also take time. For now, however, everything is speculative. It could be years before any standard system shows up on food labels, if it ever does.


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