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For front-of-pack labels, smart choices take time

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 02-Nov-2010
Last updated on 05-Nov-2010 at 14:50 GMT2010-11-05T14:50:15Z

Uh-oh, surely not another industry-sponsored front-of-pack nutrition label! Food industry engagement is welcome, but let’s take it slowly – no one benefits until we figure out a system that works.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute announced last week that they intend to develop a front-of-pack labeling scheme based on the initial recommendations of an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report meant to kick-start that process: Highlight calories, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.

But these are just the IOM’s initial recommendations. It is not in the industry’s best interests – nor consumers’ – to jump the gun.

In the dying days of the Smart Choices front-of-pack labeling program last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in a letter to industry its intent to establish “standardized, science-based criteria” on which nutrition labeling must be based. The Smart Choices program had been widely criticized for allocating its green check mark to sugary cereals.

It seems that the Smart Choices program was the push the FDA needed to engage with the issue, as a proliferation of labels jostled for attention on supermarket shelves, and it asked the IOM to examine the pros and cons of different labeling schemes. The panel’s phase II findings are due out next fall, focusing on consumer understanding of various nutrition labels.

Perhaps the GMA and FMI label will be exactly what the FDA is looking for – but perhaps not. At this stage, who can tell?

At the very least, the organizations need to wait for the second part of the IOM’s research and as yet, they have released no details of their labeling scheme, except that it will start appearing on products by early next year.

The initiative smacks of an industry attempt to preempt legislation.

Trust in on-pack claims

It is important for the food industry to bear in mind that when it comes to label claims, consumer confidence is low. According to FDA research, more than half of consumers don’t trust label claims such as ‘low fat’, ‘low cholesterol’ or ‘high fiber’. A widely implemented, independent strategy for front-of-pack labels could help rebuild confidence.

And the industry is not powerless; it has been invited to take part in the process. However, it needs to let the Institute of Medicine’s review of different label claims – and how they are perceived by consumers – run its course. Then, it can proceed with a front-of-pack labeling scheme that consumers might just trust.

Early adoption

The GMA and FMI may be hoping that enough food manufacturers invest in adopting their labeling scheme to argue that its program shouldn’t be dropped, possibly dodging labeling elements they seek to avoid. After all, its label is likely to be broadly based on what the IOM initially recommended.

In a similar situation in Europe, the CIAA (Confederation of Food and Drink Industries in Europe) also moved ahead of pending legislation to introduce its own scheme, based on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) of certain nutrients: Calories, saturated fats, salt, sugars and carbohydrates.

After persistent lobbying, it seems that the legislation may not differ greatly from the CIAA’s preferred version. A final European Parliament vote is due early next year.

But in the US, companies should be cautious before getting on board with any labeling scheme before the IOM wraps up its research. In recent months, the FDA has shown its willingness to crack down on front-of-pack claims, including the Smart Choices program, which had been adopted by several industry heavyweights before being dropped when the FDA threatened to flex its muscle.

As the United States battles with a multitude of diet-induced health problems, industry and consumers alike need thorough, completed research into what makes for effective nutrition labeling. That is the IOM’s aim.

The food industry should not rush its conclusions.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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