Why Is the FDA Supporting New Front-of-Package Label Schemes?

By Marion Nestle

Facts Up Front, interpreted as an attempt by the food industry to make an end run around label initiatives, now has everyone's backing.

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FoodNavigator.com reports that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now supporting the front-of-package labeling scheme introduced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

In previous posts, I wrote that I consider the GMA-FMI Facts Up Front scheme to be an end run around the FDA's front-of-package labeling initiatives, still wending their way through the glacial rulemaking processes.

Why an end run? The GMA and the FMI announced their scheme minutes before the Institute of Medicine released its long awaited recommendations for front-of-pack nutrition labeling.

I interpreted this action as evidence that the food industry was trying to head off anything resembling traffic light labels that might discourage people from buying products.

The industry's position is to support positives, not negatives. Facts Up Front includes both, thereby confusing the message. In contrast, the IOM's proposal focuses only on nutrients to avoid.

According to FoodNavigator:

The FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, said that the four standardized basic icons required by industry's Facts Up Front program -- for calories, saturated fat, sodium, and total sugars -- "would alleviate some of the FDA's concern regarding the potential for product labeling to mislead consumers by presenting only 'good news' about nutrient content on the front of the package, which is the concern that the regulations governing nutrient content claims were intended to address."

Taylor told GMA and FMI executives in the December 13 letter that if the icons were adopted by industry in a uniform manner, they "may contribute to the FDA's public health goals."

As FoodNavigator further explains:

The FDA letter stops short of endorsing the Facts Up Front program (initially called Nutrition Keys), saying that the agency intends to use enforcement discretion for some elements of the scheme, but not if companies use it "in a manner that misleads consumers."

The use of enforcement discretion means it would be more lenient with food companies about their adherence to other regulations, as long as the Facts Up Front icons are used in a specific way.

Apparently, the FDA no longer considers the demonstrably confusing GMA-FMI labels to be worth opposing.

Could election-year politics have anything to do with the FDA's leniency on an issue it vowed to address when the Obama administration took office?

Image: Reuters.

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/why-is-the-fda-supporting-new-front-of-package-label-schemes/253663/