by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FOP(Front-of-Package)Labels

Mar 4 2014

Food industry puts $50 million into another end run around the FDA

Over the weekend, Politico announced that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) were finally going to launch their long-threatened $50 million campaign to promote voluntary “Facts Up Front” labels on food packages.

In case you never noticed these labels—and I doubt most people do—here is an example:

GMA and FGI conducted their own survey.  This—no surprise—found that people love Facts Up Front labels, but I find that hard to believe.  Neither do others, according to Politico reporters.

For what $50 million will buy, see yesterday’s Washington Post, page A5 (thanks Politico).

Recall the history

Facts Up Front (formerly known as Nutrition Keys), was originally launched as an end run around what the FDA was then trying to do with front-of-package labeling initiatives.  This happened early in 2011.

The GMA/FMI ploy brought the FDA’s initiatives to a halt—despite the agency’s investment in two Institute of Medicine (IOM) studies to establish a research basis for front-of-package labels.

These, in turn, followed on the heels of the food industry’s ill-fated Smart Choices—an attempt to promote highly processed foods as healthy.

GMA/FMI’s goal was to head off any possibility that the FDA would mandate red, yellow, and green traffic light signals.

Red signals might discourage consumers from buying products made by the companies GMA and FMI represent.

The food industry had cause to worry.  The IOM was considering—and eventually published—a front-of-package scheme similar to traffic lights.  It used checks or stars to evaluate the content of calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium, and sugars, all nutrients to watch out for.

GMA/FMI got its much more complicated—and, therefore, harder to understand—Nutrition Keys out first.  This preempted the IOM recommendations.

The FDA gave up.  The two IOM reports went into a drawer and the FDA has done nothing with them.

Why is GMA/FMI doing this now?

Surely, it is no coincidence that GMA/FMI is rolling out this campaign on the heels of Let’s Move!’s triumphant release of the FDA’s new food labeling proposals.

They must be worried that the FDA will unearth the two IOM reports, adopt the IOM recommendations, and start rulemaking for front-of-package labeling.

One sign of the food industry’s strategy comes from Bruce Silverglade, who for years was head counsel for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), but has now revolved to a Washington, DC law firm that represents food companies.  He told Politico:

The general view in the industry is that nutrition information has really moved to the front of the pack. What FDA is doing is essentially proposing a new model of an old dinosaur.

As Michele Simon tweeted: “that comment…is rich coming from ex-@cspi lawyer who fought for label.”

What’s wrong with Facts Up Front? 

Plenty.

The IOM recommended that front-of-package labels be:

  • Simple: easy to understand
  • Interpretive: putting judgments in context
  • Scaled: indicating good, better, and best

Facts Up Front does none of the above.

Facts Up Front is a tool for selling, not buying.

Its purpose is to make highly processed foods look healthier, whether or not they really are.

Whether slightly better-for-you processed foods will help anyone make better food choices and be healthier remain open questions.

What should happen now?

With Let’s Move! really moving, this seems like a great time to urge the FDA to pull out those IOM reports and get busy on a front-of-package labeling method that will really help the public make healthier dietary choices.

Dec 19 2013

Chile’s new food labeling rules: Why can’t we do this?

A reporter in South America called yesterday to ask me about the new rules for food labels and marketing to children just issued by the Chilean ministry of health.

The rules establish nutrition standards for foods.  Products that exceed the standards will have to say high in sugar, salt, or fat in brightly colored labels (red, green, blue) on the front of the packages.

New Picture

The standards themselves are much stricter than anything ever proposed in the United States, even than those of the ill-fated Interagency Working Group (IWG).

New Picture

Sodas, for example, can only contain 15 grams of sugars per 8 ounces (they typically contain 27 grams).

I’m told that other rules deal with advertising to children (no toys, nothing specifically enticing such as cartoons).

How could this happen?

I’m not up on Chilean politics.  All I know is that these rules were proposed under the current president whose wife was behind the Elige Viver Sano program, one quite similar to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!

If you know something about the politics of this initiative, please write a comment.  I’d like to know more about this.  Thanks!

Update: Thanks to Dr. Corinna Hawkes Dr Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy and Public Affairs for the World Cancer Research Fund International sends the following information:

 

 

 

Jun 24 2013

Britain’s new food label: traffic lights (sort of)

The UK is introducing a uniform system of front-of-package food labeling—voluntary of course.

The new voluntary scheme includes traffic light colours as well as GDAs

The food industry hates it.  It’s got traffic-light colors, and we already know what that means in practice.  People tend not to buy red-labeled products.

That’s why trade associations are complaining that this system is too simplistic, misleading, and unscientific.

Worst of all, it will confuse consumers into not buying products that fit just fine into healthful diets.

Tch, tch.

Australia is introducing a star system to rate products.  Food companies don’t like that one either.

In the meantime, we’ve heard nothing about front-of-package labeling from our very own FDA since the Institute of Medicine released its recommendations in October 2011, and it looked like the FDA had given up on the idea in February 2012.

Front-of-package labels were on the early agenda for Let’s Move!

Maybe the European labeling initiatives will encourage the FDA to do so?

Mar 27 2013

How to make people think foods are healthy: greenwash!

Green labels are all that it takes to make consumers think that foods are healthier, says a new study (see full reference below):

You don’t believe this?

Decide for yourself: Which candy bar is healthier?

This clever study found that green labels increase perceived healthfulness, especially among consumers who place high importance on healthy eating.

Read it and weep: Jonathon P. Schuldt (2013): Does Green Mean Healthy? Nutrition Label Color Affects Perceptions of Healthfulness, Health Communication, DOI:10.1080/10410236.2012.725270.

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:

 

Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

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).

Page 1 of 3123