They're baaack: Consumer group wants food label changed...again

Ah, the food label, the Great Crossroads, the Window into the American Soul, where contemporary issues relating to diet and health are revealed and battled over, a town square where the features the food industry wants to tout and consumers care about are trumpeted or whispered about, with government agencies looking over everyone’s shoulder.

And right about now, a major player behind the look and content of the current food label, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is seeking a batch of further changes. Food makers should be aware of the organization’s recommendations and let the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) know their views on those that would affect their businesses.

Today’s typical food labels look as they do thanks to 1990’s Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, and the regulations FDA made to implement it. This gave us the Nutrition Facts box on most packaged foods, and standardized the definitions of label-claim terminology, such as “light” and “high,” and provisions permitting disease-related claims of benefit on food labels. Bits and pieces have been tweaked since then, like the addition of “trans fat” as an item in the Nutrition Facts box, but the key provisions are still traceable to 1990’s law (and similar requirements put in place for meat and poultry labels, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

That was 1990, and the regulations kicked-in in the mid-1990s. So it seems awful darn soon to be suggesting major changes in the rules again. But that’s just what consumer advocacy group CSPI is suggesting. CSPI was a key driver behind the legal changes that brought us today’s food label, and some of the subsequent tweaks as well. No doubt CSPI is inspired by the favorable political climate.

Conceptually, there is a difference between calling for changes in the rules because you think labels mislead consumers even when they follow the current rules, and calling for crackdowns on labels that violate the current rules. CSPI is calling for a little of both, though their emphasis seems to be on changing the rules.

For example, they don’t like when a food label touts the absence of trans fat when the food may also contain high levels of saturated fat. But the regulations don’t prevent that. On the other hand, CSPI also encourages FDA to crack own on what they call “deceptive claims,” such as “Supports immunity” in foods that contain some vitamins, though it’s not clear such food labels violate current requirements.

CSPI wants to see the use of symbols on the front of the label to give consumers a shorthand reference to nutrient content, something they petitioned FDA for back in 2006. It’s a controversial realm, given that many in industry recently stopped using the “Smart Choices” front-of-pack symbols after FDA announced it would investigate the program.

The Nutrition Facts panel changes that CSPI would like to see include: 1) greater focus on calories (e.g., larger, bolder font), similar to FDA’s own “Calories Count” program suggestion of recent years; 2) an indication when a food is high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, or added sugars (those not occurring naturally in fruit and milk); and 3) counting “fiber” differently, so only fiber from whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables would count, and not polydextrose or maltodextrin. CSPI also calls for a declaration of a food’s content of caffeine, a substance that the law has never included among the food components whose levels are to be listed in Nutrition Facts or otherwise.

If CSPI has its way, Ingredients list changes would include: typographical changes to make it more readable, such as not having the print be condensed and in capitalized font; a separate listing of “major ingredients” and “minor ingredients;” and a combination of multiple forms of sugar so that placement on the Ingredients list would reflect the combined total of all sugars.

Ominously, CSPI is also calling for statements of the percentage of content of key ingredients. Those with an interest in protecting trade-secret food formulations might want to let FDA know that this idea jeopardizes their ability to keep secrets.

More details of the CSPI suggestions can be seen at http://bit.ly/4IzMik, and it’s possible the organization may formalize some of these ideas with a Citizen’s Petition in the future.

Though the political climate might be accommodating to consumer protection in general terms, it’s still not clear to what extent FDA will be sympathetic to the CSPI suggestions.

But one indication of the climate these ideas are entering is that, at press time, a working group of representatives from FDA, the Federal Trade Commission, and Centers for Disease Control released some recommended limitations on marketing of foods to children if the foods contain specified levels of sugar, sodium or saturated fat. The limits would be aimed at combating childhood obesity, says the group, which is collecting public comments on the idea, after which it will send its advice to Congress.

Food companies with concerns about any of these ideas should contact FDA, or their legislators, and make their views known. Eric can be reached at greenberg@efg-law.com, and visit his firm’s Web site at www.ericfgreenbergpc.com.

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