The nation's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week held a two-day meeting to gather comments from industry, health groups, advocacy organizations and medical experts on the use of a labeling program similar to the UK's traffic light system.
Indeed, a number of countries around the world have already instituted voluntary labeling systems for government-designed nutrition symbols. These symbol systems vary in their format. Some systems have detailed graphic illustrations that indicate the content of a number of selected nutrients, while others simply present a single icon indicating that a food is healthful, with further information available elsewhere, such as in booklets and web sites.
In the US, the food and beverage industry has identified the need to spell things out simply for consumers, but, due to a lack of government labeling guidelines, this has resulted in a proliferation of nutrient symbols and marks designed by individual companies, trade groups, or nutrition and health organizations.
The lack of consistency has ultimately raised the risk of confusing consumers more than helping them.
"The selected nutrients and the nutrient levels required for eligibility vary among the different symbol programs in use. With the increasingly widespread availability of these symbols from manufacturers, retailers, and third party organizations, it is possible that eligible food products could bear multiple nutrition symbols," said FDA.
According to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and a panelist at the hearing, it certainly is not clear which approach is the best - 'good food' logos voluntarily placed on foods, traffic-light icons on all foods, numerical scores or others.
"The proliferation of inconsistent proprietary approaches is rapidly leading to marketplace confusion," he told FoodNaviagator-USA.com.
Jacobson said that implementing a consistent national system through the FDA regulatory process would take at least 10 years. To accelerate progress, he strongly urged that Congress pass a law that would mandate the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study and recommend one or several best approaches; the FDA would be required to propose a regulation within a year or so after receiving the IOM's recommendations.
FDA stressed during the hearing that the meeting was only a preliminary step in its consideration of a national labeling system. If this leads to the implementation of any new programs these would most likely remain voluntary, and are still several years down the line.
The nation's food industry, represented by the Grocery Manufacturer's Association (GMA) commented at the hearing that nutrition symbols used in the US are "voluntary label elements, and (…) they should continue to be voluntary".
"Since nutrition symbols on labels and labeling are truthful and non-misleading, and are consistent with the framework set forth by the government for communicating dietary and food guidance and other nutrition information, they should continue to be permitted as voluntary graphic elements on food labels and labeling," it said.
"GMA/FPA believes that the FDA policies and guidance around nutrition communication on labels and in labeling are very clear, and are being followed by the industry. Consequently, GMA/FPA believes that additional regulations focused on nutrition symbols are unnecessary."
Issues examined at the hearing this week include the product categories where nutrition symbols are used globally, and the nutritional criteria included in existing symbol systems, as well as whether the symbols are presented in combination with front-of-package claims such as 'low fat' or 'good source of calcium'.
In addition, the meeting looked at the types of programs available to educate consumers to understand the nutrition symbols, as well as consumer attitudes towards the symbols and attitudes towards products carrying the symbols compared to those that do not carry them.
Another area of examination was the extent to which the symbols are effective in promoting purchases, and whether their use has directly resulted in increased product or brand sales. The economic impact of such systems was also examined, including the cost of product development or reformulation, and the costs of putting the symbols on packages.
Transcripts of the hearing will be available in around 30 days from FDA at the Division of Dockets Management, and online (here ).