by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FDA

Nov 6 2011

Food Matters: front-of-package labels again

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle appears today.  This time, it’s about the fuss over front-of-package labels.

Q: I’m completely confused by all of the little check marks and squares on food packages telling me they are healthy. Do they mean anything?

A: The Food and Drug Administration feels your pain. It sponsored two studies by the Institute of Medicine to rationalize front-of-package nutrition ranking systems.

The institute released its second report last month; it advises the FDA to allow front-of-package labels to state nothing but calories and nutrients to avoid: saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugar (go to sfg.ly/sUptQR).

The institute’s proposal gives products one point for not containing too much of each of these nutrients. It suggests displaying the points like Energy Stars on home appliances with zero to three stars, depending on how well the product meets nutritional criteria.

This is a simple system, instantly understandable. I think it is courageous. The institute’s proposal benefits consumers. It does not help companies sell junk food.

Selling or educating?

No food company wants to display nutrients to avoid. For the food industry, the entire point of front-of-package labels is to market products as healthy or “better for you” no matter what they contain. Front-of-package labels are a tool for selling, not buying. They make highly processed foods look healthier.

Will companies accept a voluntary labeling scheme that makes foods seem worse? Doubtful.

Nutrition ranking symbols began appearing on food packages in the mid-1990s, when the American Heart Association got companies to pay for displaying its HeartCheck.

Food companies then established their own systems for identifying “better-for-you” products. PepsiCo, for example, developed its own nutritional standards and proclaimed hundreds of its snacks and drinks as “Smart Choices Made Easy.”

In an attempt to bring order to this chaos, food companies banded together to develop an industry-wide system. Unfortunately, their joint Smart Choices checkmark appeared first on Froot Loops and other sugary cereals. The ensuing ridicule and legal challenges forced the program to be withdrawn.

At that point, the FDA, backed by Congress and other federal agencies, asked the Institute of Medicine for help.

The institute released its first report last year. It revealed inconsistencies in the 20 existing ranking schemes from private agencies, food companies and supermarket chains. Toasted oat cereal, for example, earned two stars in one system, a score of 84 (on a scale of 100) in another, and a score of 37 in a third.

The report said labels should display only calories and to-be-avoided nutrients. Labels should not display “good-for-you” nutrients – protein, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals – because these would only confuse consumers and encourage companies to unnecessarily add nutrients to products for marketing purposes.

Although the FDA was waiting for the second institute report before taking action, the food industry wasted no time. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute introduced their own system.

Complicated approach

They got their members to agree to a more complicated system, “Nutrition Keys,” based on nutrients to avoid but also including up to two “good-for-you” nutrients.

Food companies immediately put Nutrition Keys’ symbols – well established to be difficult for consumers to understand – on package labels where you can see them today. Now called Facts Up Front, the symbols are backed by a $50 million “public education” campaign.

The reasons for the industry’s preemptive strike are obvious. The second Institute of Medicine report gives examples of products that qualify for stars – toasted oat cereal, oatmeal, orange juice, peanut butter and canned tomatoes, among them.

It also lists the kinds of products that would not qualify for stars, including animal crackers, breakfast bars, sweetened yogurt and chocolate milk.

So the industry argues that consumers “want simple and easy to use information and should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families … rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat.”

But why, you ask, does any of this matter? I view front-of-package labels as a test of the FDA’s authority to regulate and set limits on any kind of food industry behavior. If the FDA cannot insist that food labels help the public choose healthier foods, it means the public has little recourse against any kind of corporate power.

Perhaps Facts Up Front will arouse the interest of attorneys general – just as the Smart Choices program did.

In the meantime, the industry’s pre-emption of FDA labeling initiatives is evidence that voluntary schemes don’t work. Labeling rules need to be mandatory.

Let’s hope the FDA takes the Institute of Medicine’s advice and starts rule-making right away.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail comments to food@sfchronicle.com.

Nov 4 2011

Front-of-package labels: a survey and reprise

Food Navigator’s “special edition” on front-of-package labeling includes the results of a new survey of readers’ attitudes and a round up of previous articles.

Front-of-pack poll results: No clear winner (except cynicism…): The results of this poll are amusing, not least because they depend—as always—on how the questions were asked.   Respondents to this one were offered five choices:

  • Facts up Front. Consumers don’t want to be told what to eat (29% picked this one).
  • The IOM scheme. Busy shoppers need more guidance (19%).
  • Other points-based schemes that include positive nutrients. eg. Guiding Stars (11%).
  • Traffic-light-type color-coding schemes (~5%).
  • We’re kidding ourselves if we think front-of-pack labels will change behavior (36%).

This last is tempting.  Front-of-package labels, as I keep insisting, are about encouraging sales of one processed food product over another.  They have little to do with encouraging healthier food choices.

Front-of-pack labeling in pictures: Healthier choices at a glance or more nutritional wallpaper?: Red lights, green dots, ticks, stars, healthy seals, nutrients to encourage, nutrients of concern, smart choices… The aim of front-of-pack labels is simple – to help us make healthier choices (or at least more informed ones) – fast. But how best to achieve this has prompted a storm of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic….

IOM front-of-pack labels are step in right direction but need more work, says Guiding Stars advisor: The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) proposed front-of-pack (FOP) labeling scheme is a positive step forward, but “needs much more work”, according to supporters of one leading FOP scheme already up and running in the marketplace….

IOM front-of-pack labeling scheme: It’s bold, it’s simple and I love it. But is it fair?: The Institute of Medicine (IOM) certainly didn’t pull any punches in its front-of-pack labels report yesterday….

IOM calls for ‘fundamental shift’ in approach to front-of-pack food labeling: Front-of-pack (FOP) labeling schemes should “move away from systems that mostly provide nutrition information without clear guidance about healthfulness and toward one that encourages healthier food choices”, according to a high-profile report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM)….

Not a word from the FDA about the IOM’s front-of-package report.  What will FDA do?  What can FDA do?  It’s a voluntary scheme and companies can voluntarily refuse to use it.  Hence: those useless (except to food companies) “Facts Up Front.”

Oct 31 2011

The latest fish story: this time it’s Boston-area restaurants

When I wrote What to Eat, a book devoted to discussion of food issues using supermarkets as an organizing device, I needed five chapters to discuss issues related to fish.  By the time I was through, I considered the fish sections of supermarkets to be the Wild West of the food industry: anything goes and the buyer had best be wary.

Fish regulation, I pointed out, is divided among at least four federal agencies: USDA for marketing, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for ocean fisheries, EPA for fish caught for sport and recreation, and FDA for fish safety.  This alone should tell you that this is a virtually unregulated industry.

Now the Boston Globe presents the latest evidence for this dismal view.  Investigative reporters examined fish served in Boston-area restaurants.  Oops.  They found widespread bait and switch.  In many restaurants—even good ones—the fish served are not what customers think they paid for.

On the menu, but not on your platefish at restaurants were mislabeled about half the time, sometimes deliberately.  The site takes some work to scroll through but is worth the effort.  Here is one example:

At East Bay Grille in Plymouth, what was advertised as native scrod or haddock was actually previously frozen Pacific cod. A general manager said the restaurant hadn’t yet updated the menu. The revised menu, however, still describes the fish as “fresh day boat scrod.”

From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abusefish is a largely unregulated industry and problems are pervasive.

Suppliers such as Goldwell use the names interchangeably, contributing to a little-known but pervasive problem in the international seafood industry: lower-quality and less expensive fish mislabeled as desirable species. Some distributors do this unknowingly, while others intend to deceive. Lax government oversight, industry indifference, and consumer ignorance allow mislabeling to flourish.

Fish misidentification is especially common at sushi restaurants, partly because they use various names for the same fish. The confusion can be compounded by packaging labels written in other languages that are incorrectly translated into English.

Bertucci’s tries to right a wrong: How hake ended up as cod on the menu at 94 Bertucci’s restaurants.

Scrutiny vowed on fish labeling: state officials vow to improve oversight of seafood sales.

Good luck to state officials.  They will have their hands full trying to get on top of this industry.  Here’s what I wrote in What to Eat:

Much of this industry acts like it is virtually unregulated and as if all it cares about is selling fish as quickly as possible at as high a price as the traffic will bear.  Out of ignorance or, sometimes, unscrupulousness, the more profit-minded segments of this industry bend the rules to their own advantage any time they can get away with it.  No wonder “fishy” translates as “suspicious.”  If you want to buy fish, you need to watch out for labels that are sometimes untruthful and often misleading” (p. 232).

Thanks to the Boston Globe for exposing this fish scandal. 

And thanks to Consumer Reports for doing a similar story in its December issue.  Its investigation found 20% of 190 samples to be mislabeled.  And the only fish consistently labeled correctly were Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, and bluefin and ahi tuna. 

Regulation anyone?

Oct 20 2011

IOM releases tough report on front-of-package labeling

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) just released its second report on front-of-package (FOP) labeling.  It tells FDA to allow only four items in any front-of-package evaluation scheme:

  • Calories
  • Saturated and trans fat
  • Sodium
  • Sugars

To display this, the IOM committee recommends a point system based on levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and sugars for evaluating food products.  The points are to be indicated with check marks or stars.  Here is an example of how stars might be used to indicate products that qualify for zero, one, two, or three points.

I’m guessing that anything this clear and understandable will elicit storms of protest.

Recall that food companies have been setting their own nutrition criteria for evaluating their very own products and identifying the “better-for-you” or “more nutritious” products with special front-of-package logos.  By company standards, many of their products qualify for the logos.

To deal with the multiplicity and absurdity of such schemes, the FDA asked the IOM to take a look at the various FOP logos that were out there and recommend how to clean up the mess.  The first IOM report said the FDA should allow FOP labels to state only calories, saturated and trans fat, and sodium, but not sugars (this last was a mistake, I thought).

But—while the FDA was waiting for the IOM to produce its next report, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) jumped the gun.  Their preemptive logo included “positive” nutrients such as vitamins and fiber along with the “negatives.”  This scheme is already in use on food packages.

The IOM committee was faced with an impossibly difficult task: to come up with a front-of-package scheme that would reduce the overall nutritional quality of processed foods to the sum of a few key factors.

Given strong industry marketing pressures to retain front-of-package labels—and the lack of an option to remove them altogether—the committee did the best it could with an inherently bad idea.

Why a bad idea?  FOP labels are a tool for selling, not buying.  They make highly processed foods look healthier, whether or not they really are.

And whether slightly better-for-you processed foods assessed by this method will help anyone to make better food choices and to be healthier remains open questions.

Nevertheless, the IOM proposal is a huge improvement over what food companies are now doing.  I consider it courageous.

Why courageous?  Because the scheme makes it so easy to distinguish products that qualify for the various point levels.

For example, here are some products that qualify for stars:

  • Toasted oat cereal
  • Oatmeal, instant
  • Milk, 1% fat
  • Yogurt, plain nonfat
  • Salad dressing, light
  • Orange juice, 100%
  • Grape juice, 100%
  • Kidney beans, canned
  • Peanut butter
  • Tomato soup, “healthy”
  • Tomatoes, canned

Examples of products that do not qualify:

  • Animal crackers
  • Graham crackers
  • Breakfast bar
  • Sweetened toasted oat cereal
  • Oatmeal, instant with fruit, nuts
  • Chocolate milk
  • Yogurt, sweetened

I can’t wait to see the GMA and FMI press release on this report.

And the FDA must now take this report under consideration to begin its interminable rulemaking process.

Why, you might ask, does any of this matter?  Aren’t questions about what food companies put on package labels basically trivial?  Don’t FOP label fights divert attention from other, more important food issues?

Maybe, but I see this as a test of the FDA’s authority to regulate and set limits on any kind of food industry behavior.  If the FDA cannot mandate a label that might help consumers choose healthier food options or refuse to permit labels that mislead consumers, it means the public has little recourse against any kind of corporate power.

I think this matters, and I’ll bet food companies do too.

And now, sit back and watch the lobbying begin!

That did not take long:  Here’s the GMA press release—fairly tame all things considered:

The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols report adds a perspective to the national dialogue about front-of-pack nutrition labeling.  In the meantime, food and beverage companies have developed a real-world program that delivers real value to real consumers in real time.

Consumers have told us that they want simple and easy to use information and that they should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families. The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat.  That is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.

My translation: Consumers prefer to have the food industry’s “Facts Up Front” tell them what to eat?  I don’t think so.

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Oct 7 2011

European Union sets rules for food labels

According to Food Chemical News (October 7), the European Union has finally agreed on rules for food labels.  These are disappointing.  They allow much of the current confusion to continue. 

Here’s what they are said to do:

  • Packaged foods will have to be labeled with amounts of calories, fat, saturated fats, carbohydrate, protein, sugars and salt.  This is the “mandatory nutrition declaration.”
  • Amounts are to be expressed per 100 grams or 100 milliliters.  Per-portion will be voluntary as will percentage of reference intakes, meaning that the confusing Guideline Daily Amounts can continue.
  • Packages may display traffic lights or other graphics and symbols, as long as they don’t mislead consumers, are supported by evidence of consumer understanding, and don’t create trade barriers in the EU’s internal market [my interpretation: goodbye traffic lights].
  • All elements of the nutrition declaration must appear together, but some can be repeated on the “front of pack.” 
  • The mandatory nutrition declaration can be supplemented voluntarily with “better for you” nutrients such as mono-unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, polyols, starch, fiber, vitamins, and minerals [alas, this is a sellout].  
  • Calories must be expressed per 100 g/ml, but also per portion.

Too bad.  I was hoping for something better, more along the lines of what the Institute of Medicine(IOM)  has proposed and less along the lines of what the Grocery Manufacturers and Food Marketers are doing.

The second  IOM report on front-of-pack (FOP) labeling is due out in a few weeks.  I am eager to see what the IOM committee thinks the FDA should do about FOP labels.  Stay tuned. 

 

 

Sep 29 2011

Since when did cantaloupe become a WMD*?

Are you as puzzled about the latest cantaloupe outbreak as I am?  This time it’s Listeria again (see previous post on this particular pathogen).

According to the CDC, 72 people have been infected with the strains of Listeria associated with the outbreak in 18 states.  Most appalling,  13 people have died.

The CDC says that the people who have become ill range from 35 to 96 years, with a median age of 78 years.  Most are over age 60 or have health conditions that weaken the immune system.  Pregnant women are at especially high risk as are their fetuses.

As always, the recall occurred after most of the cases were reported to the CDC.  The cantaloupe were traced to Jensen Farms, which issued a recall on September 14.

Why cantaloupe?  They are, after all, grown in dirt and their skin is rough, textured, and has plenty of places for bacteria to hide.  People pick up Listeria by handling the fruit and cutting into it.  FDA’s information page lists the recalls and press releases on the Jenson Farms outbreak.

The FDA’s advice: throw it out.

Do not try to wash the harmful bacteria off the cantaloupe as contamination may be both on the inside and outside of the cantaloupe. Cutting, slicing and dicing may also transfer harmful bacteria from the fruit’s surface to the fruit’s flesh.

What do food safety experts say you have to go through to avoid getting sick from eating cantaloupe?

  • Wash the melon under running water with a clean vegetable brush.
  • Blot with paper towels to remove excess water.
  • Put melon on a clean surface, one that hasn’t come into contact with meat or poultry or other foods that could cause cross-contamination.
  • Cut off the stem end about 3/4 to 1 inch from the end, using a clean kitchen knife.
  • Place melon on a clean cutting board, plate, or other clean surface with the cut end facing down.
  • Using a clean knife, cut the melon from the blossom end to the stem end.
  • Follow this by washing the knife with clean running water and setting it aside.
  • Gently scrape out the seeds with a clean spoon and cut the melon into slices or whatever is desired.
  • Don’t use dish soap or detergent; cantaloupes can absorb detergent residues.
  • Do not allow the rind to touch any part of the edible fruit.
  • Melon that isn’t eaten should be peeled, covered and refrigerated.
  • Discard any melon that has been at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour when the temperatures are over 90 degrees F.
  • Follow these procedures for all melons, no matter where they were grown.

What?  No HazMat suit?

We are talking about cantaloupes here.

How about a food safety system where everyone makes sure—and tests—that Listeria don’t get on cantaloupe in the first place.

Single food agency anyone?

_____

*Translation: Weapon of Mass Destruction

Sep 28 2011

Help! Rescue the government’s marketing-to-kids nutrition standards!

I’ve just gotten an urgent plea from Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Please encourage everyone to write to President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and federal agencies to support the nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids.

As I’ve discussed previously, these were created jointly by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) of four federal agencies—CDC, FDA, FTC, and USDA.

Under intense pressure from the food and entertainment industries and their friends in Congress, the IWG’s proposed guidelines—voluntary, no less—are in danger of being withdrawn.

Doing that might help corporate health but would do nothing for public health.

CSPI organized 75 researchers (including me) to send a letter to the President urging support of the voluntary guidelines and expressing dismay at the campaign of disinformation aimed at getting them withdrawn.

Junk-food advertisers, in the guise of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, have attacked the voluntary guidelines as an assault on the First Amendment, a point debunked by top Constitutional experts, and claimed that adopting the voluntary guidelines would result in job losses, based on a flimsy industry “study.”

….It would be a real setback for children’s health if the Administration backed down on strong guidelines for food marketing to children, especially given the transparently specious arguments of junk-food advertisers….Denying the science on food marketing and childhood obesity is like denying the science on global warming or evolution.

But the food industry is dug in on this one.  For example, a reader sent me this letter from Tom Forsythe, Vice President, Corporate Communications, General Mills (excerpts follow with my comments in brackets):

Your email notes that we have lobbied against the Interagency Working Group (IWG) proposal.  That is correct.  We have serious concerns about the IWG proposal.

Our most advertised product is cereal – and we stand behind it.   Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make….If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.

Childhood obesity is a serious issue – and General Mills wants to be part of the solution.  But if the issue is obesity, cereal should perhaps be advertised more, not less.

…You can be assured than food and beverage companies have studied every letter, comma and period in the proposal.  We know what it says, and what it does not.

For example, we know that 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages could not be marketed under the IWG guidelines.  The list of “banned” items under the guidelines would include essentially all cereals, salads, whole wheat bread, yogurt, canned vegetables, and a host of other items universally recognized as healthy [Note: I’m not at all sure this is true–MN].

Despite the characterizations used to advance them, the IWG guidelines would not be voluntary, in our view.  The IWG guidelines are advanced by two of the agencies most responsible for regulating the food industry, as well as the agency most responsible for regulating advertising.  Ignoring their “voluntary guidance” would not be an option for most companies.

Regulation has already been threatened (even demanded) should companies choose not to comply – and litigation would inevitably follow.

The IWG guidelines also conflict with most existing government programs and definitions relative to food.  For example, many products that meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current definition of “healthy” could not be advertised under the IWG guidelines [It would be interesting to see examples].

Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards, as do most products encouraged and subsidized under the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children Feeding Program (WIC) [If so, this is a sad commentary on what we encourage low-income mothers and children to eat].

Finally, your email suggests companies should focus on providing feedback via public comment.  We agree.  We have reviewed every detail of the IWG proposal – and we remain opposed, as our public comment explains.

My interpretation: if food companies are this upset, the guidelines must be pretty good.

Companies have the right to sell whatever they like.  But they should not have the right to market it as healthy or to kids.

Tell the IWG you support their guidelines.  Tell the White House to protect the guidelines.  Now, please.

 

 

Aug 30 2011

Don’t like bothering with food safety rules? Sue the FDA!

In an astonishing display of what can only be described as chutzpah* Del Monte sued the FDA for insisting on a recall last March of its cantaloupes likely to be contaminated with a toxic form of Salmonella Panama. Now Del Monte is also suing the State of Oregon.

On what grounds?

Notably, “[t]he FDA investigation ultimately found no connection between Del Monte Fresh cantaloupes and any cases of Salmonella Panama, including in Oregon,” the company says. “FDA issued a notice ending the recall on July 29, 2011.”

The CDC thinks otherwise.  Its investigations pointed to imported Del Monte cantaloupes as the source of an outbreak that affected 20 people in several states:

Twelve of 16 ill people reported eating cantaloupe in the week before illness. Eleven of these 12 ill people ate cantaloupes purchased at eight different locations of a national warehouse club. Information gathered with patient permission from membership card records helped determine that ill persons purchased cantaloupes sourced from a single farm. Product traceback information indicated these cantaloupes were harvested from single farm in Guatemala.

FoodSafetyNews reviews the history of this particular recall.  It agrees with Del Monte that tests performed in April on cantaloupe samples from the Guatemala farm came out negative for Salmonella and that the FDA has now ended the recall.  But:

Del Monte had announced the recall in March, after the suspect melons had passed their shelf-life date. It is not clear whether any of the cantaloupes tested were actually the suspect melons. In foodborne illness investigations, samples of the food from the same batch eaten may no longer available by the time the connection to an outbreak is made. Epidemiology, rather than a contaminated sample, is the evidence that points to a likely source.

For these reasons, attorney Bill Marler terms the lawsuit “frivolous.”  He is suing Del Monte on behalf of a sick client.

Public health agencies doing their jobs to protect the public now have to defend against lawsuits like this?  Putative cause is no longer enough to order recalls?

U.S. courts are not famous for understanding epidemiology or other aspects of public health and I’m wondering what effect this suit will have on public protection against foodborne illness.  What standard of proof will the courts require?

Lawsuits are chilling.  Congress has just granted the FDA the authority to order recalls.  Food producers were not happy about that provision.  This is one way to get around Congress and the FDA.

It is worth asking who gains and who loses from lawsuits like this.

*Hence: chutzpah, which if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the Yiddish word for outrageous audacity.

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