Industry's New Food Labels: The Race to Beat the FDA

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The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are announcing their "Nutrition Keys" plan for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels. Their member companies have agreed to display calories and percent of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, per serving, on the front of product packages.

So far, so good.

But they also will be displaying up to eight "positives," nutrients that are supposed to be good for you. They say they will be using some kind of design similar to what some companies are using now, only with "positives" added.

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Note: this illustration comes from Mars (the company, not the planet). It is not what GMA and FMI will necessarily use.

Let me repeat what I wrote last October when GMA and FMI first said they intended to do this: Forget the consumer-friendly rhetoric.

There is only one explanation for this move: heading off the FDA's own front-of-package labeling initiatives.

In October, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first of its FDA-sponsored reports on FOP labels. Based on research on consumer understanding of food labels and other considerations, the IOM committee strongly recommended that FOP symbols only list calories, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat.

This led William Neuman of The New York Times to summarize the IOM approach as: "Tell us how your products are bad for us."

GMA and FMI would much rather label their products with all the things that are good about them, like added vitamins, omega-3s, and fiber. If they have to do negatives, they prefer "no trans fat" or "no cholesterol."

What they especially do not want is for the FDA to impose "traffic-light" symbols. These U.K. symbols, you may recall from previous posts, discourage consumers from buying anything labeled in red, and were so strongly opposed by the food industry that they caused the undoing of the British Food Standards Agency.

From what I've been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA.

GMA and FMI, no doubt, are hoping the same thing will happen to the FDA.

At the moment, the FDA is waiting for the IOM's second report. This one, due in a few months, will advise the FDA about what to do about FOP labels—again based on research. Couldn't GMA and FMI wait?

From what I've been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA. This is what they had to do to get member companies to agree. They say the new labels will go on about 70 percent of branded products by next year. They also say they will spend $50 million on public education.

How this will play out in practice remains to be seen. You can bet that plenty of highly processed foods will qualify for "positives," just like they did with the industry-initiated Smart Choices logo, may it rest in peace.

As I said in October: This move is all the evidence the FDA needs for mandatory FOP labels. GMA and FMI have just demonstrated that the food industry will not willingly label its processed foods in ways that help the public make healthier food choices.

Let's hope the GMA/FMI scheme flunks the laugh test and arouses the interest of city and state attorneys general—just as the Smart Choices program did.

The official announcement is coming this afternoon. Stay tuned.


This post also appears on foodpolitics.com.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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