by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Feb 3 2012

The U.K. food industry fights labeling efforts, successfully

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, writes that the U.K. food industry is fighting back over initiatives to reduce calories and mitigate climate change.

He sends an article from the British trade publication, The Grocerabout how the U.K. government has reneged on its “responsibility deal” with industry to reduce calories in food products. 

The idea was to demand that food companies reformulate products, control portion size, and take “action to shift to lower calorie options.”

But now, in response to industry protests,  the U.K. Department of Health is simply inviting food companies to help in the development of calorie-reduction policies.

To this invitation to the fox to guard the chickens, professor Lang comments:

Those of us following the currently fashionable ‘nudge’ theory and other ‘Food Policy lite’ initiatives will note this leak about softening the Responsibility Deal on calorie reduction here in England with concern…Perish the thought that sections of the Food Industry might have lobbied hard to stop any efforts to reduce portion size. Perish, indeed.

Another article in The Grocer points out that Tesco, Britain’s leading food retailer, is pulling out of an agreement to put carbon labels on products becausedoing so is too much trouble.

Professor Lang writes:

Here is the world’s 3rd largest food retailer, Tesco, apparently saying that the carbon label (a weak system for changing behaviour in the first place, perhaps) takes too much time. Well, well, well.

If this is true…the implications are considerable, not least for the planet, given that a third of European (i.e., rich consumers) greenhouse gas emissions are due to food.

He gives as sources for that statement:

  • Tukker, A., et al., Environmental Impacts of Diet Changes in the EU. 2009, European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies: Seville.
  • Tukker, A., et al., Environmental Impact of Products (EIPRO): Analysis of the life cycle environmental impacts related to the final consumption of the EU-25. EUR 22284 EN. 2006, European Commission Joint Research Centre.: Brussels.
  • Audsley, E., et al., How Low Can We Go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050 2010, FCRN and WWF: Godalming, Surrey.

So much for voluntary actions by industry.  Regulation anyone?

 This just in: The European Commission issued a statement of regret that the European Parliament vetoed its proposal to allow “percent less” health claims on food packages yesterday.  These are statements that a product contains 15% less sugar, for example.

The Commission thinks such claims will encourage reformulation of food products.  The Parliament believes that such claims are misleading and will promote sales of junk foods. 

Which is right? Who knows?

Jan 30 2012

Isn’t it about time GM foods got labels?

I was fascinated to read Cookson Beecher’s Food Safety News’ analysis of current campaigns to label genetically modified foods (GMOs).

It brought back memories of the time I served as an obviously ignored consumer representative on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee.  Back in the early 1990s, the FDA formed this committee to get advice on issues that might be controversial.  It asked us for advice about whether to approve GM foods and, if so, whether they should be labeled.

We learned later that the FDA was using the committee to give it a heads up on decisions that were already made.  The FDA had every intention of approving GMOs (I wrote about this in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

I and the other three consumer representatives argued as strongly as we could that labeling was essential:

  • Consumers have a right to know
  • Consumers want to know (polls showed this overwhelmingly, even in 1994)
  • Not-labeling will induce distrust of biotech foods and the biotech industry
  • Not-labeling will end up hurting the biotech industry (in Europe, definitely.  Monsanto is no longer selling GM corn in France and BASF has moved its biotech operations to the U.S.)
  • Not-labeling will stimulate the organic industry (it did!)
  • The FDA allows plenty of process labeling (e.g., made from concentrate, irradiated)
  • Not-labeling will make the FDA look as if it was in bed with the biotech industry
  • Transparency is always the right thing to do

Too bad our arguments failed.  Eighteen years later, not-labeling has caused no end of problems for the biotech industry.  This issue is not going away.

The FDA has approved many GM fruits and vegetables but it is impossible to know whether they are offered for sale in supermarkets (as I discussed in Safe Food, Hawaiian papayas are the most likely candidates).

But most corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in America are GM.  So are sugar beets.

Campaigns to require labeling of GM foods are heating up.

  • Washington state is considering legislation
  • California may have a ballot initiative
  • 14 states, among them Oregon, New York, Maryland and Vermont, considered bills last year
  • Alaska passed a law requiring GMO labeling of fish and shellfish in 2005
  • 50 countries require disclosure of GM ingredients

The “Just Label It!” campaign is collecting signatures.  If this is an issue you care about, signing on is easy.

Oct 14 2011

“Better-for-you” products better for food industry? Only if they can be marketed as such.

A study released yesterday reports that so-called “better-for-you” (BFY) foods (those low in salt and sugar, high in fiber or with added vitamins, for example) may account for only about 40% of company sales, but they account for more than 70% of growth in sales.

Hudson Institute, October 2011

According to the press release accompanying the report, companies that sell BFY products “record stronger sales growth, higher operating profits, superior shareholder returns, and better company reputations than companies that sell fewer BFY products.”

The public health implications?  According to the report:

  • Placing more emphasis on selling BFY foods and beverages is an effective pathway to improved sales, profits, shareholder returns, and reputation.
  • Proof that bottom lines can benefit when companies have a greater percentage of sales from BFY foods could accelerate progress toward the development and marketing of more nutritious foods.
  • Public health officials and policymakers need to be aware of food and beverage companies’ core business goals in order to work effectively with them to address the obesity epidemic.

I emphasize the third one because it sounds so much like a veiled threat.

I think it means that if public health officials want the food industry to make healthier food products, they better let food companies market their products any way they like:

  • To children with no restrictions
  • Using cartoons on packages of products aimed at children
  • Using health claims with no restrictions
  • Using front-of-package labels that emphasize “good-for-you” nutrients

Or else.

Or else what?  Just watch what the food industry will do (and is doing) whenever public health officials try to restrict advertising to children or demand that that companies put nutritional “negatives” on front-of-package labels.

Here’s CNN Health’s account (I’m quoted) and the one in the Wall Street Journal (I’m not).

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 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.

 

Jul 29 2011

Rethink the food label? Vote by Sunday noon!

The Berkeley group that organized a contest to redesign the food label has picked its top choices from among 24 entries.   Take a look at them on that site and vote for your favorite by midday Sunday.

Tara Parker-Pope has a nice summary on her New York Times blog along with interviews with the judges.  Lily Mihalik, cocreator of the project explains:

We asked food thinkers and design minds to come together and give advice on how they might rethink the food label and bring some insight into how design impacts choice…There are a lot of things right with the current label, but at the same time people are confused. The question is whether a new nutrition facts label could help people make more educated decisions.

Good question.  My take is that most of the entries are even more complicated than the current Nutrition Facts label and leave out a lot of useful things you might like it to do:

  • State the content of calories per serving
  • State the serving size
  • State the content of nutrients of interest per serving (opinions can vary as to which are worth listing)
  • Compare those levels to standards for daily intake
  • Explain how those levels apply to a typical day’s diet
  • Indicate how the food fits into diets that vary in calorie intake
  • List ingredients
  • List allergens
  • Be accurate, noticable, understandable, and usable

Overall, the label is supposed to help consumers make more healthful food choices.  It also has to fit on food packages.

As several of the entries suggested, it would also be helpful if the label could indicate the degree of processing.  Actually, you can figure that out now by looking at the ingredient list.  Count the ingredients, see if you can pronounce them, and make sure they are recognizable as food.

If anything, this project demonstrates how difficult it is to develop a design that addresses all of these issues.   The January 6, 1993 Federal Register notice that announced the Nutrition Facts label takes up nearly 900 pages.

That notice reviewed the research that led to the current label.  The review makes it clear that nobody understood any of the available design options.   The FDA, under great pressure to meet a deadline set by Congress, chose the design that was least poorly understood.

Hence the FDA’s web pages devoted to explaining how to read and interpret the Nutrition Facts label, and its even lengthier web guide to the food industry on how to create the labels.

The FDA is currently doing the preparatory work for an eventual revision of the label, so these designs come at an opportune time.  Take a look and see what you think of them. 

The designers were brave to take this on. 

And so is the FDA.

May 28 2011

Redesign the Nutrition Facts label? Here’s your chance!

Utne reader has just announced the most interesting contest: redesign the food label.

The contest is sponsored by Good magazine and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s News21 program.  It is called the Rethink the Food Label project.

Anyone can enter.  Just think of some way that would make the label more useful.

The FDA is currently working on doing just that, and for good reason.  The label is so hard to use that the FDA devotes a lengthy website to explaining how to understand and use it.

This too is understandable.  The Nutrition Facts label is the result of regulations in response to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.  When the FDA started writing regulations to implement the Act, it tested consumer understanding of a bunch of potential designs.

The result?  Nobody understood any of them.  The FDA, under pressure to complete the regulations by the congressional deadline, chose the option that was least poorly understood–the best of a bad lot.

Surely someone will come up with something better than this?  The deadline for submission: July 1. One of the judges is Michael Pollan. Give it a try!

 

Apr 26 2011

Should food labels say salt or sodium?

According to today’s Food Chemical News (which, unfortunately, requires a subscription to read), the FDA is arguing to make the international standard for food labels say sodium, not salt.

The U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling will push for requiring the term “sodium” rather than “salt” on nutrition labels.

The European Union and its allies prefer “salt,” arguing that it is better understood by consumers.  But:

The United States is strongly opposed to removing “sodium” from the list of nutrients requiring disclosure. “We hope to achieve compromise and not remove sodium from the list,” said Schneeman. Asked about resolution of the dispute, she replied, “We still have our feelers out [to potential supporters]. Sodium is the nutrient, not salt.”

Maybe, but salt is what people eat.

I think “salt” makes more sense.  You?


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