by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GMA(Grocery Manufacturers Association)

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 26 2013

A post-Xmas roundup of items on GMOs

The holidays are a quiet time for food politics so I thought I catch up on some pending items, starting with GMOs.

No, tired as you may be of them, GMO issues are not going to disappear in 2014.

My prediction: labeling will come, maybe sooner rather than later, although it’s hard to say in what form.

Nov 6 2013

In food politics too, money talks

Can money buy elections?  Apparently so.

Yesterday’s election results indicate that the GMO-labeling initiative in Washington state and the soda tax initiative in Telluride, CO both failed.

Washington’s I-522

According to USA Today, the defeat cost opponents $22 million.  All of that—except $550—came from out of state.

The top five contributors were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience.

But the Grocery Manufacturers Association was required to list its contributors.  The top five?  PepsiCo, Nestlé (no relation), Coca-Cola, General Mills, ConAgra  at about a million each when you add it all up.

USA Today reports:

Food industry ads claimed that the initiative would raise food prices. Labels would mislead consumers into thinking that products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are “somehow different, unsafe or unhealthy,” said Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry group based in Washington, D.C.

The Yes on 522 campaigns emphasized consumers right to know what’s in their food.

But PoliticoPro points out that because votes are mailed in, more than 600,000 votes may still be left to count.

The food and biotech industries used their considerable war chest to make ad buys across the state, pointing out all of the products that would not be covered under the measure — such as cheese, beer, restaurant food and even, they claimed, pet food — and pushing the message that the bill is misleading and would considerably raise food prices. They said the law would hurt Washington’s farm families.

As I told USA Today, sooner or later, one of these is going to pass. At some point the industry is going to get tired of pouring this kind of money into these campaigns and will beg for labeling, which is what should have happened in the first place.

The Telluride soda tax

Telluride is a small town, so the amounts are much smaller.

According to ProPolitico, the Colorado Beverage Association installed an onsite lobbyist to generate opposition to the measure through meetings and an Internet site.

The largest donors to the opposition campaign were a Texas billionaire who owns a second home in Telluride ($55,000), and the the local and national beverage associations. were the largest contributors to the anti-tax campaign, giving $20,000 and $55,000 respectively.

Taxes, of course, are never popular even when intended for public health purposes, as this one was.

Soda taxes too, will pass eventually.

Patience and fortitude.

Addition: Here’s the Washington State vote as of this morning.

May 7 2013

Grocery Manufacturers Association says: Eat less, move more (it’s your fault, not ours)

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) recently released an interactive  guide to using Facts Up Front, its front-of-package nutrition symbols.

Here’s an excerpt from the GMA’s Infographic:

The GMA’s press release said Facts Up Front

empowers consumers to make informed choices. It arms them with critical nutrition information about their favorite products…Through this website, we are providing consumers with the knowledge and tools they need to build a healthful diet.

The website includes, among other things:

The GMA says:

Facts Up Front labels…highlight nutrition information – calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving – in a clear, easy-to-understand format. The labels also provide consumers with valuable information about “nutrients to encourage”…The labeling program was developed in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s call on the food and beverage industry to help consumers construct a healthy diet for themselves and their families.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, I can’t believe that this is what the First Lady had in mind.  I view Facts Up Front as the industry’s end run around the FDA’s long delayed attempt to make front-of-package nutrition information actually useful to consumers.

I’m greatly in favor of eating less, eating better, and moving more as a way to manage weight in today’s food marketing environment.  

But coming from GMA, the message takes on additional meaning: it’s up to you to make healthful food choices.  The companies represented by GMA take no responsibility for the effects of their products on health or of their marketing on your food choices.

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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