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.