Food Industry Labeling Plan: Another Dumb 'Smart Choice'?

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Today, the food industry announced it would use a series of symbols on the front of food packages to inform consumers about the nutrition quality of its products. The announcement was made by two large industry trade groups, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Consumers deserve information about the quality of foods they are buying. But can the industry be trusted to protect public health—or has it developed a self-serving labeling system that will forestall government action and lock in the status quo? That status quo leaves industry free to create, market, and sell products that are very high in sugar, fat, and salt.

The industry has not proven itself trustworthy anytime lately. A recent example of industry "self-regulation" was "Smart Choices," a program in which industry allowed itself to use a symbol of its own design on products that met its own nutrition criteria. Products like Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies qualified as smart choices. After an investigation by the Connecticut Attorney General and critical comments by the Food and Drug Administration, the industry aborted the program.

The industry risks what occurred with the tobacco industry: steeply declining public trust and a climate where government gets heavily involved.

Now the industry asks to be trusted yet again, this time with different symbols for the front of packages. The example of the system released by the industry appears above.

I see several major problems. First and most important, the industry has preempted the Institute of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration. Both groups have been studying the front of package issue, and are expected in the near future to release recommendations for what labeling should be.

Why then was the industry in a headlong rush to release its own system, when more-objective criteria would soon be developed? I cannot read the minds of industry people, but one possibility is that the companies feared they would be asked to use a system that reflected badly on many of its products. The industry would then have to use the system or refuse to comply, placing it in an untenable position.

The industry has strongly resisted any system, such as that used in the United Kingdom, that would indicate a product is too high in any nutrient such as saturated fat, sodium, or added sugar. Hence it developed a system that did not include any type of information that indicate levels higher than the ones currently recommended, or in fact that could make a consumer automatically pass by one product for another. Instead, the label shows numbers that may very well be difficult for consumers to understand or to use.

It is possible that the industry system will have beneficial effects.But it will be impossible to know until objective testing is done. From what has been studied and found so far, the system may have so many symbols that consumers will not be able to make use of the information. And it lacks the color-coding system that has been shown to be helpful.

Many players in the food industry have issued pledges as a sign they can police themselves—for instance, to market less junk food to children, and to argue that government can remain on the sidelines. The industry risks what occurred with the tobacco industry: steeply declining public trust and a climate where government gets heavily involved with legislation and regulation.

If food companies really wanted to avoid that, they could have waited for the Institute of Medicine and FDA recommendations to be released, and then follow advice that promises to be authoritative. Instead, it has made a preemptive strike that may undermine its credibility and lead to more, not less, government intervention.

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Kelly Brownell is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, where he is also a professor of epidemiology and public health and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. More

Kelly Brownell is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, where he is also a professor of epidemiology and public health and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. In 2006 Time magazine listed Dr. Brownell among “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in its special Time 100 issue featuring those “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.”

Dr. Brownell was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine in 2006 and has served as president of several national organizations, including the Society of Behavioral Medicine, Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, and the Division of Health Psychology of the American Psychological Association. He has received numerous awards and honors for his work, including the James McKeen Cattell Award from the New York Academy of Sciences, the award for Outstanding Contribution to Health Psychology from the American Psychological Association, the Distinguished Alumni Award from Purdue University, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Rutgers University. He has served in a number of leadership roles at Yale including Master of Silliman College and Chair of the Department of Psychology from 2003 to 2006.

He has published 14 books and more than 300 scientific articles and chapters. One book received the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Book from the American Library Association, and his paper on "Understanding and Preventing Relapse," published in the American Psychologist, was listed as one of the most frequently cited papers in psychology.

In his popular book Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis & What We Can Do About It, he and co-author Katherine Battle outline bold public policy initiatives for reversing the obesity epidemic and describe steps individuals can take to help safeguard their own and their families’ health in a culture that feeds its pets better than its children and makes it nearly impossible for the poor to be healthy.

Dr. Brownell has advised members of congress, governors, world health and nutrition organizations, and media leaders on issues of nutrition, obesity, and public policy. He was cited as a “moral entrepreneur” with special influence on public discourse in a history of the obesity field and was cited by Time as a leading “warrior” in the area of nutrition and public policy.


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