by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FMI(Food Marketing Institute)

Feb 27 2012

FDA says Facts-Up-Front is OK?

FoodNavigator.com reports that the FDA is now supporting the front-of-packaging labeling scheme introduced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

In previous posts, I wrote that I consider the GMA-FMI Facts-Up-Front scheme to be an end run around the FDA’s front-of-package labeling initiatives, still wending their way through the glacial rulemaking processes.

Why an end run?  GMA and FMI announced their scheme minutes before the Institute of Medicine released its long awaited recommendations for front-of-pack nutrition labeling.

I interpreted this action as evidence that the food industry was trying to head off anything resembling traffic light labels that might discourage people from buying products.

The industry’s position is to support positives, not negatives.  Facts Up Front includes both, thereby confusing the message.  In contrast, the IOM’s proposal focuses only on nutrients to avoid.

According to FoodNavigator,

FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, said that the four standardized basic icons required by industry’s Facts Up Front program – for calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars – “would alleviate some of FDA’s concern regarding the potential for product labeling to mislead consumers by presenting only “good news” about nutrient content on the front of the package, which is the concern that the regulations governing nutrient content claims were intended to address.”

Taylor told GMA and FMI executives in the December 13 letter that if the icons were adopted by industry in a uniform manner, they “may contribute to FDA’s public health goals”.

As FoodNavigator further explains

The FDA letter stops short of endorsing the Facts Up Front program (initially called Nutrition Keys), saying that the agency intends to use enforcement discretion for some elements of the scheme, but not if companies use it “in a manner that misleads consumers”.

The use of enforcement discretion means it would be more lenient with food companies about their adherence to other regulations, as long as the Facts Up Front icons are used in a specific way.

Apparently, the FDA no longer considers the demonstrably confusing GMA-FMI labels to be worth opposing.

Could election-year politics have anything to do with the FDA’s leniency on an issue it vowed to address when the Obama administration took office?

Feb 7 2012

Walmart’s new front-of-package “buy me” logo

This morning, Walmart announced a new FOP labeling program:

The logo will go on Walmart’s in-house brand products that meet the company’s nutritional criteria.  These criteria are similar (but not identical) to those recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its recent report advising the FDA about what should be included in front-of-package labels.

Because the FDA has not yet acted on the IOM report, Walmart—like other retailers—is jumping the gun in doing its own thing.  Its thing, however, is a substantial improvement over the Facts Up Front scheme put in place by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute.

In general, strict nutrition criteria for salt, sugar, and saturated fat exclude most supermarket products.

Walmart’s criteria are pretty strict.  They exclude 80% of Great Value products.

In the cereal category, for example, only these Great Value items qualify:

  • Extra Raisin Bran Cereal
  • Raisin Bran
  • Bran Flakes
  • Crunchy Oat Squares
  • Frosted Shredded Wheat
  • Crunchy Nugget Cereal
  • Toasted Wholegrain Oat Cereal

But these Great Value cereals do not:

  • Cocoa Cool Cereal
  • Cinnamon Crunchy Oat Squares Cereal
  • Apple Blasts Cereal
  • Sugar Frosted Flakes Cereal
  • Toasted Corn Cereal
  • Crisp Rice Cereal
  • Fruit Spins Cereal
  • Fruity Puffs Cereal
  • Crunchy Honey Oats Cereal
  • Vanilla Almond Awake Cereal

OK, but I wish the company had waited for the FDA to decide on a plan for FOP labeling (and I wish the FDA would get busy on that plan).

All of these schemes are ways to avoid putting negative information on package labels.  No seller or retailer wants a red traffic light—”don’t buy me”—on its products, especially because research shows that stop signals work.  Customers tend not to buy products marked with red traffic lights.

The IOM report concluded that negatives (“don’t buy”) worked better than positives (“buy me”) in guiding consumer choice.   A more recent study confirms that finding.

Companies much prefer green-light systems like the one Walmart is doing.

The Walmart press release explains:

Walmart moms are telling us they want to make healthier choices for their families, but need help deciphering all the claims and information already displayed on products…Our ‘Great For You’ icon provides customers with an easy way to quickly identify healthier food choices…this simple tool encourages families to have a healthier diet.

But does it?  Will Walmart customers buy more of the items marked with the logo instead of the other kinds?  The company says it is doing the research.  Will customers who buy products with the logo be healthier as a result?

I can’t wait to find out.

Addition, February 8: Here’s the way the New York Times dealt with this (I’m quoted).

Jan 27 2012

Guess what: Traffic light labels work

A study published online in the American Journal of Public Health fiddled around with red (avoid) and green (eat me) labels on items in a hospital cafeteria.

The investigators measured sales before the start of the intervention.  About a quarter of items sold were in the red category and 42% were green—these hospital workers were already making healthy choices.

The intervention took place in two 3-month phases.  The first phase just involved traffic light labels.  In the second phase, the investigators moved the items around to make the green-labeled products more visible and accessible.

The results: labels alone led to decreases in sales of red-labeled items and increases in sales of those with green labels.

For example, sales of red-labeled drinks decreased by 16.5%.  When the drinks were made less accessible, sales declined by an additional 11.4% (sales of bottled water increased).

No wonder the food industry in Great Britain fought so hard against traffic light front-of-package labeling.  No wonder the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute much prefer their own guaranteed-not-to-work system.

And data like these surely explain why the FDA is taking so long to do anything with the Institute of Medicine’s proposed labeling system—not exactly traffic lights, but pretty close.

This study provides further evidence for the value of such schemes for helping people make healthier choices.

FDA: get busy!

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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Sep 27 2011

Food industry thinks name change will disguise bad labeling scheme

Does a name change make a difference?  The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) evidently think so.

They are changing the name of their preemptive front-of-package (FOP) labeling scheme from “Nutrition Keys” to “Facts Up Front.”

The new name comes with a new website, a new organization (FactsUpFront.org), and a $50 million marketing campaign.

Its purpose?  As I have discussed on more than one occasion (see here and here, for example), GMA and FMI are engaged in a blatant, in-your-face attempt to undermine the FDA’s current efforts to rationalize FOP labeling.

The FDA engaged the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to produce two research reports on FOP labeling.  The first IOM report, released a year ago, concluded that FOP labels should disclose only calories and three “bad-for-you” nutrients: saturated fats, trans-fats, and sodium.  I thought the report made sense but that the omission of sugars was a mistake.

The IOM also said that information about good-for-you nutrients—protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals—would only confuse consumers and would be likely to encourage food companies to unnecessarily fortify products with these nutrients as a marketing strategy.

The second IOM report, according to press accounts, is due out sometime in October.  The FDA is waiting for this report before starting rulemaking on FOP labels, an interminable process at best.

In the meantime, the food industry has jumped the gun.  The Facts Up Front website justifies this scheme on the basis of the Dietary Guidelines:

To ensure that consumers receive consistent and reliable information, the labeling system also adheres to current guidelines and regulations from FDA and USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services.

…Manufacturers may also choose to include information on up to two “nutrients to encourage.” These nutrients – potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron – are needed to build a “nutrient-dense” diet, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Yes they are, but not on the front of food packages.  It’s obvious why GMA and FMI are doing this—they know that nobody will look at or understand the label.

But they should not be doing this.  It is the wrong thing to do.

On the topic of name changes:  The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has just changed its name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I’m not a member of the ADA, can only speculate on what this is about, and have no comment.

 

Jan 25 2011

“Singing Kumbaya,” GMA/FMI displays preemptive label design

I listened in on the conference call at which the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute announced their new Nutrition Keys design for front-of-package labels.

My favorite comment: We are all “singing kumbaya” here.  Nutrition Keys, they said, was the result of a” monumental, historic effort” in which food companies “stepped up to the plate in a big way,” “with 100% support.”

Why did they go to all this trouble?  Because “A healthy consumer makes for a happy consumer.”

Kumbaya, indeed.

The real reason, as I explained yesterday, is to preempt the FDA’s front-of-package food labeling initiatives which might make food companies reveal more about the “negatives” in processed foods.

Here’s what GMA and FMI say the new label will look like:

Four of these things are required: Calories, Saturated fat, Sodium, and Total (not added) sugars.  Packages can also display up to two “nutrients to encourage” picked from this collection:  protein; fiber; vitamins A, C, and D; and potassium, iron, and calcium.

Let’s give these food trade associations credit for listing sugars instead of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation for trans fat.  Trans fats are already gone from most processed foods.  Everyone cares about sugars.  But these are total sugars, not added sugars, which is what really matters.

And protein?  Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets?  We already eat twice the protein we need.  The rationale?  Vegetarians.   I repeat.  Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein?  Never mind, protein makes the products look better.

Nutrition Keys merely repeats what’s on the Nutrition Facts labels, only worse.  It makes the percent Daily Values practically invisible.  Which is better?  High or low milligrams or grams.  You have to know this, and Nutrition Keys doesn’t help with that problem.

Nutrition Keys, says the industry, is about “more clarity in labeling.”  Really?  Here’s what it will look like on a food package.

I’ve been collecting reactions.

Although GMA and FMI insist they they are doing this in response to the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, the White House issued this statement:

The White House, including the First Lady, recognizes these companies for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative. We regard their commitment to dedicate space, for the first time, to an industry-wide front-of-pack label as a significant first step and look forward to future improvement. The FDA plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts in the field to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed. We will continue to work on seeking solutions for the problem of childhood obesity in America.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was more forthcoming:

The industry’s unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA’s effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels.

Given that negative and positive nutrients will not be differentiated on the package, there is significant risk that these labels will be ignored.  An adequate labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods, and should not mislead them into believing that some foods are healthy when they clearly are not.

Reporters asked tough questions on the conference call about preemption of FDA efforts to do front-of-package labeling in a rational way (see my post from yesterday).  Perhaps space limitations made full accounts impossible: