Food manufacturers and retailers currently employ a wide variety of labeling systems and the FDA fears that these may often boil down to marketing exercises offering little meaningful information to consumers.
The agency therefore wants to develop standardized and science-based criteria for food labeling. As part of that quest it has announced plans for a survey to evaluate consumer understanding of nutrition labels.
The IDFA welcomes the FDA decision to explore how people understand and use labels but the dairy trade body argues that its scope should be wider.
Purchasing and understanding
In a letter to the FDA, it said consumer research should investigate how labels affect purchasing decisions as well as consumer understanding.
This issue was brought into focus last month by an Oxford University study published in Health Promotion International that suggested the ‘traffic light’ system used in the UK does not influence the healthiness of buying decisions.
The IDFA is also concerned that the FDA is only considering front of pack labels in its survey instead of also looking at shelf tags. The trade association said more and more stores are introducing shelf tags using a variety of system and the criteria used is not always clear to consumers.
Studying the details of the FDA study proposals, the IDFA was also critical of the phrase “we hope to reject the hypothesis that there is no difference between different systems.” It said the statement seems to suggest that the FDA’s position is pre-decided, and that the agency assumes one system will prove vastly superior to others.
Voluntary or mandatory
Regarding its more general position on front of pack labels, the IDFA restated its view that any system of labeling should be voluntary and present information on nutrients and foods to encourage as well as discourage.
On this second point, the FDA included both nutrients to encourage and discourage in its study design, but on the first point, the agency has threatened to make labeling mandatory if a voluntary approach fails.
In a letter to industry in October, the FDA said: “If voluntary action by the food industry does not result in a common, credible approach to front of pack and shelf labeling, we will consider using our regulatory tools toward that end.”