New Tool: ProSource
Check out our packaging and processing solutions finder, ProSource.

FDA Labeling Changes Could Come at a Cost for Food Processors

Front-of-pack labeling, reduced sodium and sugar levels, and enforced ingredient traceability are on the horizon for food manufacturers. Here’s what processors can expect next.

FDA FOP Labeling Examples
Some examples of front-of-pack labeling being proposed by the FDA, which focus on a traffic-light format with three key ingredients highlighted.
Michael Costa

Certain segments of the food and beverage manufacturing industry—like snack foods—have been blamed in recent years by health and nutrition advocacy groups and government entities for being at the root of the country’s obesity epidemic, along with other maladies like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more.

One solution proposed by these groups is to enact a variety of changes within the food and beverage manufacturing industry, including simplified labeling, lowering levels of sodium and sugar, and enforcing ingredient traceability for allergens. All of these scenarios could put the financial onus on the manufacturer to execute within their operations.   

Martin Hahn, partner at Hogan Lovells and SNAC International general counsel, recently discussed where these topics currently stand at SNX in Dallas for an audience of snack manufacturers. Here’s a roundup of what Hahn says processors can anticipate from these proposed initiatives.

Front-of-pack nutrition labeling

In 2022, the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was released, with the goal of ending hunger in the U.S., along with encouraging healthy eating and physical exercise in the population by 2030, which in turn, could reduce diet-related maladies like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more. Hahn says the underlying message of this strategy is that the bulk of the change needs to come from the food industry through labeling changes and reduced sodium and sugar, rather than focusing more on changing people’s eating habits.

“I felt like if you’re in the food industry then everything is your fault,” says Hahn. “When you look at what was coming out of this program, it was all about what the FDA had to do and what the [food and beverage] industry should be doing to try to take more responsibility for the chronic disease that we have in this country, and I just inherently think that’s unfair.”

   Mondelēz promotes ‘Mindful Indulgence’ amid weight-loss drug popularity.

Within this government strategy, the FDA has been tasked to focus on standardized front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labeling, and simplifying it to a trio of ingredients—saturated fat, sodium, and sugar—while using graphics similar to a traffic light, where red would mean high levels, green would mean low levels, and yellow would mean average levels. This scheme is still in the market research stages to see if it will resonate with consumers, and has not been mandated to the food manufacturing industry yet.

“What’s really surprising is this format excludes calories,” Hahn says. “I’m not a nutritionist, but I’m pretty certain calories are a key component [for diet]. I would consider calories to be the single most important factor consumers need to know if they’re trying to maintain a calorie static lifestyle.”

According to the FDA, FOP nutrition labeling would complement the traditional Nutrition Facts label rather than replace it, with FOP labeling helping consumers with lower nutrition knowledge to quickly and easily identify foods that can help them build a healthy eating pattern.

“Regardless of the amount of processing, if snack products are in a package, and they’re sold in the center store aisles, and they’re something more than whole-grain wheat, they’re probably going to be viewed as an ultra-processed food,” says Martin Hahn, partner at Hogan Lovells.“Regardless of the amount of processing, if snack products are in a package, and they’re sold in the center store aisles, and they’re something more than whole-grain wheat, they’re probably going to be viewed as an ultra-processed food,” says Martin Hahn, partner at Hogan Lovells.Michael Costa

Hahn noted that it takes little effort to simply turn a box on its side to read the standard Nutrition Label, and joked that he wanted to start a campaign called “Do the Flip” to encourage shoppers to flip food and beverage packages and read the ingredients. On a more serious note, he mentioned that any eventual FOP addition to food and beverage packaging will likely create an enormous expense for the industry to execute.  

“The most troubling aspect about [FOP] labeling is the cost it will impose on the industry, and that is what’s really important to mention when you go to Washington to meet with your representatives. If you’re talking about a mandatory labeling scheme, every label is going to have to be touched. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, and that’s an expense that is frequently overlooked. If I’m going to be part of a multi-million-dollar cost on the industry, then I would like to see a cost benefit analysis,” says Hahn.

Sodium and sugar reduction

Another aspect of this government strategy is an initiative to reduce sodium and sugar in packaged food and beverage. The plan currently remains voluntary for manufacturers to comply, with the sodium levels across 163 categories of foods having been assessed for the mean levels of sodium across each category, along with a maximum limit where no single food in any category can exceed a specific level of sodium.

“We’ve been talking sodium reduction for years,” Hahn says. “I would encourage everyone in the industry to continue down this path. Lowering sodium levels should be something that is front of mind when you’re looking at new product formulations. It’s very easy for me to say just make modest reductions, but I understand that the process is time consuming and expensive. The reality is if you reformulate your products and consumers don’t like it, they don’t buy it. So, be mindful that you have a product that hits that sweet spot of taste, but I encourage you to continue to work on this journey, because [the call to reduce sodium levels] is something that’s not going away.”

Speaking of a sweet spot, Hahn urged a cautious approach for manufacturers opting to reduce sugar content in their products. “Added sugars are next in line [for reduction], but it will be a little more complicated because unlike salt, which is commonly not the sole ingredient that’s found in a product, there are certain products that are basically sugar, like full-calorie carbonated soft drinks, which is water and sugar. Many of the candies that are out there too, you can’t say, ‘Oh, reduce your sugar content by 60%.'”

   Mars’ new strategy aims to double snacking revenue.

Hahn advises processors to “start thinking about sugars like reducing sodium, and cut sugar content by a gram or two, or three, and see if the product can still maintain its flavor. Sooner or later, the [FDA] is going to come out with a recommendation on added sugar levels, so we can start being proactive now. Sugar is a great part of flavor, but are there other ways to maintain that great flavor, that great taste, and maybe cut down the sugar a little bit? That’s something you can start doing today, so that when we do have these voluntary guidelines on added sugar coming out in the future, you’ll be ahead of the game rather than behind it.”

Ultra-processed foods

Hahn also addressed the emergence of the term “ultra-processed foods” into the mainstream, and how it is painting the entire processed foods industry—particularly snack foods—with a broad brush of negativity.

One of Hahn’s slides defined ultra-processed foods as being made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods—like oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins—or derived from food constituents like hydrogenated fats and modified starch. They also can be synthesized in laboratories from food substrates to make the product hyper-palatable. Manufacturing techniques for ultra-processed foods include extrusion and pre-processing by frying. The term ultra-processed foods originated from the NOVA Food Classification System developed by Brazilian researchers in 2009.

“Regardless of the amount of processing, if snack products are in a package, and they’re sold in the center store aisles, and they’re something more than whole-grain wheat, they’re probably going to be viewed as an ultra-processed food,” Hahn explains. “What I’m seeing right now is a continuation of that entire category of foods being disparaged, and more information and studies coming out trying to say ultra-processed foods are responsible for our obesity. One line of research is saying a calorie is not a calorie because ultra-processing makes foods ultra-calorie laden. I believe a calorie is a calorie—it’s nutrition 101.”

Ingredient traceability    

Hahn reminded the audience that compliance with a new FDA ingredient traceability rule is set to start in January, 2026, with routine FDA inspections starting in 2027. Hahn says the new rule is designed to better track common food allergens in products using ingredients like nut butters and soft cheeses. This will require food manufacturers and their ingredient suppliers to collectively maintain records for end-to-end traceability, and make sure those records are easily accessible in a sortable spreadsheet within 24 hours of the FDA requesting the information.

“It’s very easy to say we have about two years to deal with this, but you need to start working on it today if you’re going to be part of this rule,” says Hahn. “For example, if you’re a peanut butter cracker manufacturer and you’re just spreading that peanut butter onto a cracker, you’re going to need full traceability for that peanut butter. That means all those records that were created by the peanut manufacturer need to come to you, and then you transfer those to your distribution center and then retailers, and you’re going to be responsible to make certain all those records are accompanying the shipment of your products, and you will have 24 hours to get that information to the FDA. If you are fortunate enough to be taking that peanut butter and cooking it into a cracker or into a cookie where you have a kill step, you control the hazard, so traceability is not going to be the same issue for you.

“You have to start working now because it requires your system to talk to your customers’ systems,” Hahn continues. “I was talking to a client who mentioned one of their suppliers was still using Wang computers so they couldn’t even accept a regular PDF. The weakest link in this process is going to be a problem, so you need to make certain that your systems are compatible with your suppliers’ systems and your customers’ systems.”

Discover Our Content Hub
Access Packaging World's free educational content library!
Read More
Discover Our Content Hub
How Can You Honor a Leader?
Induction into the Packaging & Processing Hall of Fame is the highest honor in our industry. Submit your leader to be considered for the Class of 2024 now through June 10th. New members will be inducted at PACK EXPO International in Chicago
Read More
How Can You Honor a Leader?