by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Smart Choices

May 6 2011

AGree: “Can’t we just all get along?”

The title of this post is a quote from Steve Clapp’s article today in Food Chemical News about the unspoken message behind formation of a new group called AGree (Agriculture, Agree, get it?).  AGree, according to its gorgeous website, aims to “advance the well-being and prosperity of people in the United States and abroad by transforming food and agriculture policy.”

AGree is a bold new initiative designed to tackle long-term agricultural, food and rural policy issues. AGree has significant funding from eight of the world’s leading foundations for at least the next eight years…We also recognize the interconnected nature of agriculture policy globally and we seek to break down traditional silos and work across issue areas.

The funders? These are heavy hitters: Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

Who is running the show? AGree is to be led by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; Gary Hirshberg, chairman and CEO of Stonyfield Farm; Jim Moseley, former USDA deputy secretary in the first Bush administration; and Emmy Simmons, former assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

What’s the plan? AGree will “Build bridges among groups that have not traditionally worked together…This approach is needed because policy reform efforts targeting the food and agriculture system have traditionally operated in many independent silos – governmental, political, stakeholder, geographic and substantive – that have made transformative change impossible.”

Steve Clapp quotes Dan Glickman saying that AGree is going to “operate outside the partisan political process” because “Food policy is too important to be left to the food industry.”

What are we to make of this? It’s much too soon to say but it reminds me of two previous efforts to forge consensus among stakeholders.

One is a group that I belong to called PAPSAC, which stands for Private and Public, Scientific, Academic, and Consumer Food Policy Group.  The group, organized by Ray Goldberg, has been meeting for about 15 years, first at the Harvard Business School and more recently at the Kennedy School.  The meeting brings together high level CEOs of food and agribusiness companies, government officials, people in business and public relations, academics, and advocates to exchange views in private.  Its original purpose was to try to find middle ground on controversial issues such as genetically modified foods.   But one of the unstated hopes was that consumer advocates would relent on opposition to GM foods.

The second example is the ill-fated Smart Choices.  This, you may recall, was an attempt of the Keystone Center to get food companies and academics to agree on common standards for front-of-package labeling.  When it became evident that food companies were calling the shots, the consumer advocates dropped out.  The result?  The Smart Choices logo appeared on Froot Loops and failed the laugh test.

The problem with attempts to build consensus is that the sides aren’t equal.  Agribusiness calls the shots or won’t play.

I’m curious to know how the leadership intends to proceed.  At the Future of Food meeting in Washington this week, Gary Hirshberg made it clear that he is a strong proponent of organic agriculture and strongly against GM.  I don’t see easy bridges between stakeholders with this particular issue, but maybe AGree will start with easier ones.

If I read between the lines correctly, AGree will convene meetings and produce policy papers.  The group seems to be steering clear of the 2012 Farm Bill until after it’s passed.

As with all such things, let’s wish the AGree leaders luck and give them a chance to see what they can do.

Nov 23 2010

Kellogg settles class-action health-claims suit

Kellogg has had a bad year on the truth-in-advertising front.

First, It took the brunt of the furor over the late and unlamented Smart Choices fiasco, when the program’s first logo turned up on Froot Loops of all things and was attacked by the Connecticut attorney general.

Next, the IMMUNITY banner on Cocoa Krispies drew fire from the San Francisco city attorney’s office.

Both boxes are now collectors’ items.

Now, FoodNavigator-USA reports that Kellogg has taken another expensive beating, this time on its health claim for Mini-Wheats.

In 2009, Frosted Mini-Wheat boxes sported this health claim:  “Clinically shown to improve children’s attentiveness by nearly 20%.”

Of course this cereal can do that, especially when kids eating it are compared to kids who don’t eat any breakfast at all—which is what this study did.

But that’s not what the adorable television advertisements imply, as shown in exhibits A and B in the summary of the class-action decision.

Last April, Kellogg settled a dispute with the FTC over this claim.  The FTC did not argue that the claim was inherently absurd because of the lack of an appropriate control group for the study.  Instead, it took the study at face value and charged Kellogg with exaggerating the results because hardly any children—only 11%—improved attentiveness by 20% or more.

Kellogg has just settled a class-action suit over this claim that will cost the company $2.75 million in order to pay customers between $5 and $15 each in compensation.  The company also will give $5.5 million to charities.

Because of city and state attorneys and the FTC, the most egregious health claims are slowly disappearing from cereal boxes.     But lawsuits do not constitute policy.  What goes on the front of food packages is FDA territory.

FDA: Get to work!

Oct 30 2009

Industry abandons Smart Choices!

The Connecticut Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, announced yesterday that all eight food companies involved in the Smart Choices program have agreed to drop out pending his investigation and the FDA’s decision about front-of-package labeling.  Says Blumenthal:

Food manufacturers now realize that continued use of the logo would only mislead and compound consumer confusion. Other food labels richly deserve the same scrutiny — which we will give them with relish.

My investigation into Smart Choices, now supported by the FDA, continues to seek any scientific research or evidence behind a program that promotes mayonnaise, sugar-loaded cereal and ice cream as Smart Choices.

Many in the food and beverage industry have sugarcoated their labels — diverting and distracting consumers from nutrition truth, and pushing them toward obesity and disease. Self responsibility and good parenting are key to healthy lifestyles, but impossible when food manufacturers misguide them.

Our initiative should send a message to other food manufacturers that labeling must be completely truthful and accurate without hype or spin, especially when appealing to children. I am strongly encouraged by interest in our investigation by other attorneys general who can form a powerful coalition against misleading or deceptive food labeling.

Keep an eye out for what other city and state attorneys will be doing about food labels.   FDA: get busy!

Oct 23 2009

Smart Choices suspended! May it rest in peace.

Big news!  According to an AP report today, the group that runs the Smart Choices program has announced that it will “postpone” active recruitment of new products and will not encourage use of the logo while the FDA is in the process of examining front-of-package labeling issues.

Who says the FDA does not have any power?  I think it does.  And let’s welcome it back on the job.

As for my nutrition colleagues in the American Society of Nutrition, the group that competed to manage the program and has been defending it ever since, here’s what they now say:

Dear ASN Member,

Today the Smart Choices Program announced the decision to voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the Smart Choices Program logo. This move follows an announcement by FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, M.D. on Oct. 20, 2009, which said that the agency intends to develop standardized criteria on which future front-of-package (FOP) nutrition or shelf labeling will be based. In a letter captioned, “Guidance for Industry” and posted on its website, the FDA stated: “We want to work with the food industry − retailers and manufacturers alike − as well as nutrition and design experts and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health.”

ASN commends the FDA on its announcement of intent to develop standardized criteria on which front-of-pack nutrition and shelf labeling could be based. In addition, ASN fully supports the decision of the Smart Choices Program Board of Directors to postpone their active operations as FDA works to address both front-of-pack and on shelf labeling.  “ASN will continue to provide nutrition science expertise within the dialogue on front-of-pack labeling in order to best serve the interests of the health of Americans,” said ASN President Jim Hill in a statement to media.

Sincerely,

ASN Executive Board

As I have explained in previous posts about Smart Choices, the ASN should never have gotten involved in this dubious enterprise in the first place.  The organization was lucky to get out of this so easily.  I hope it does not make the same mistake again.

The press had a field day with the Smart Choices logo on Froot Loops.  As Rebecca Ruiz at Forbes puts it, “the uproar over the program has conveyed a definitive message to industry: Don’t try to disguise a nutritional sin with a stamp of approval.”

Oct 20 2009

FDA to clean up front-of-package mess

The FDA has a new “Dear Industry” letter announcing that it is going to set some rules for those “better-for-you” stickers on the front of junk food packages.  Why?   “FDA’s intent is to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP [front of package] nutrition labeling must be based.”

What this is about, of course, is all those self-endorsement labels food companies like PepsiCo (Smart Spot),  Kraft (Sensible Solution), and many companies collectively (Smart Choices) have been putting on their products.

The companies set up their own nutrition criteria and then applied those criteria to their own products. Surprise!  A great many of their products qualified for the “better-for-you” labels.

I’m guessing Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that the Smart Choices check mark could go onto Froot Loops was so astonishing, and the subject of so much ridicule, that the FDA had to act.  If nutrition criteria are developed independently, most junk foods would not qualify.

The FDA also says it will be testing how well consumers understand different kinds of package labels.  It gives a bunch of examples.  Want to know how the FDA is thinking about this?  Check out its handy backgrounder, which if nothing else is an excellent introduction to the entire issue of front-of-package labels.

Have a preference about what to use?  Write the FDA at this address:

Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. All comments should be identified with the title of the guidance document: Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling.

Addendum, October 22: Here are two additional documents to add to the collection.  First, a letter to representative Rosa DeLauro responding to her complaint about the Smart Choices program.  Second, is a a summary of the talking points used by Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in her press conference on the new FDA initiatives.   My conclusion:  the FDA is back on the job!

It’s about time the FDA got back on the job. This is in reaction to the self-endorsements food companies have been making on package labels. The way this works is that companies set up their own nutrition criteria and then apply those criteria to their own products. Guess what. Lots of their products qualify for better-for-you labels. Examples: PepsiCo (Smart Spot) and Kraft (Sensible Solution), and now lots of companies working together (Smart Choices). I think Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that its check could go onto Froot Loops made it clear that the bar had to be set higher. Yes, they are suggesting something voluntary, but if the nutrition criteria are honest enough, junk foods won’t qualify.

Oct 15 2009

Connecticut takes on Smart Choices!

Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticult Attorney General, says he is about to conduct an investigation into the Smart Choices program because it is “overly simplistic, inaccurate and ultimately misleading.”   Recall that Froot Loops, a product with sugar as its first ingredient, qualifies as a better-for-you option.  Apparently, Mr. Blumenthal is talking to the Attorneys General of other states and several want to join his investigation.  While they are at it, maybe they should also take a look at the role of the American Society of Nutrition in developing and managing this program.

But count on the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to defend Froot Loops as a Smart Choice.  Explains ACSH’s Jeff Stier:

Froot Loops and Lucky Charms have the ‘Smart Choices’ label. They have sugar in them, but they also contain half of a person’s daily requirement of some vitamins. If we’re able to give kids those nutrients, it should be okay to give them some sugar. If they sold these products without sugar, kids wouldn’t eat them, or they might end up adding even more on their own….Don’t companies have the right to say those foods are better than others? It’s not as if they are making specific health claims, rather these are just comparative claims.

This Richard Blumenthal is the same one who has been seeking to ban e-cigarettes…Connecticut may have more serious problems to focus on than banning e-cigarettes and worrying about companies trying to point consumers to healthier products. Froot Loops obviously isn’t the healthiest food out there, but it’s better than many others.

It’s that debatable philosophic argument again: Is a so-called “better-for-you” product necessarily a good choice?

[Note: I'm in Rome this week and am most grateful to the six people who sent me the Times article and the two who sent the ACSH post.  Thanks so much!]

Sep 26 2009

The Not-So-Smart Choices story continues…

We now have a piece mentioning the Smart Choices program in The Economist as well as a letter from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, the member of the Smart Choices program committee to whom the quotation about Froot Loops, “Better than a doughnut,” is attributed.

The Economist discusses the booming business of functional foods: “Consumers are swallowing such products, and the marketing claims that come with them.” It mentions the fuss over Smart Choices, but the best part is the caption to the illustration that comes with it.

It's practically spinach

It's practically spinach

And, I’ve been sent a copy of an e-mail letter to alumni from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, explaining her participation in the Smart Choices program:

Dear Friedman School Alumni,

There is an issue that has emerged as a result of a NY Times article that appeared in the business section on Sept 5, 2009. Since I believe I was grossly misquoted in the article and that the article does not accurately depict the Smart Choices program, I want to share with you some background on this program and my involvement.

In 2007, I was invited to join the Keystone Roundtable on Food and Nutrition. Keystone is a non-profit organization that brings individuals together around potentially controversial issues. The roundtable included health organizations, food companies, retailers, and academic researchers from a variety of U.S. universities. I was one of the academics who served pro bono on the roundtable. Initially, we met to discuss revisions to the FDA nutrition label. Ultimately, we decided to address the issue of Front of Pack Labels on food products. The final recommendations of the group were based on consensus science including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA definition of healthy, WHO recommendations and the Institute of Medicine Scientific reports. The program that emerged from this meticulous process is called “The Smart Choices Program (SCP).” Food products that qualify as “better for you” get a check mark as well as disclosure of calories per serving and number of servings in a product.

I believe there are three major advantages to this program in addition to the rigorous scientific underpinnings.

First, the SCP is intended to improve food patterns at point of purchase – the super markets. To do this, food products are divided into 19 categories – based on research – that reflect how people buy food. All fruits and vegetables without additives automatically qualify.

Second – and a major plus – the program was tested prior to launch with consumers.

Finally, food companies who participate in the program have agreed to abandon their proprietary systems and adopt one system – the Smart Choices Program.

Thus, thousands of products using the SCP check mark will reach millions of consumers. It is a credit to the social responsibility of participating companies that because of the strict nutrition criteria, fewer of the individual food products will qualify for the Smart Choices Program.

As a non-industry board member, I have been targeted by negative emails, letters and even some phone calls. I regret that some of this hostility has been focused on the Friedman School and Tufts University and must note that I serve as an individual on the Smart Choices Program. Tufts University is not involved with it….

As nutritionists, we know that, in many ways, the science of nutrition is straight-forward. It is the translation of science into action that is often complex and can be contentious. Within our field, there are many opinions on how to improve the nutritional well-being of people worldwide. It is precisely at an academic institution like Tufts that we should have a respectful and open dialogue about these issues….For additional information, you may also want to go to www.smartchoicesprogram.com….

The letter gives me a chance to repeat a few points that I have made in previous posts (see Smart Choices, Scoring Systems) and on the general matter of corporate sponsorship of nutrition activities (tagged as Sponsorship).

First, this enterprise was paid for by participating companies to the tune of $50,000 each for a total of $1.67 million.  Social responsibility?  I don’t think so.  Companies usually get what they pay for.  Hence: Froot Loops.

Second, a comment on the research basis.  I have written extensively in Food Politics and in What to Eat about the influence of food companies on federal dietary guidelines and the compromises that result.  Even at its best, the process has to be impressionistic and cannot be either meticulous or rigorous.  The guidelines are meant to be generic advice for healthful eating.  They were never meant to be used – and cannot be used – as criteria for ranking processed foods as healthful.

The FDA standards for comparison to Daily Values on food labels are also worth a comment.  They were the basis of Hannaford supermarkets’ Guiding Stars program, which awards one, two, or three stars to foods that meet FDA-based criteria.  By those criteria, Froot Loops does not qualify for even one star.  If Smart Choices had relied on FDA criteria, such products would not be check marked.

Dr. Kennedy makes some excellent points in her letter and I particularly agree with one of them: nutritionists differ in opinion about how best to advise the public about diet and health.  Mine is that the Smart Choices program is a travesty and the sooner it disappears, the better.

September 29 update: The L.A. Times weighs in with a story (which quotes me).  It’s got another great comparison from a member of the Smart Choices committee:  “Cereal provides an array of nutrients and is a good breakfast…especially if the alternative is a sweet roll.”  My son, who saw the story, has this comment: “Hey! I think Froot Loops are a “Smart Choice.” After all, they have “froot,” don’t they? And maybe no nutritionist you know would recommend Froot Loops for breakfast, but what about for lunch or dinner?”

Sep 23 2009

Update on not-so-Smart Choice labels

Three items on the Smart Choices front (make that four – see below):

1.  Let’s start with the great video by ABC News [if the link doesn't work, go to the ABC News site and search for Food Label Fight].  It features an incredulous Mark Bittman pulling check-marked products off supermarket shelves, along with Richard Kahn defending the program.  Kahn, as I discussed in What to Eat, defended the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) implied endorsement of Post sugary cereals.  When Jane Brody wrote about this in the New York Times, the Association promised to remove its logo from the products and did so after a bit.

2.  The letter-writing campaign organized by Change.org has had the same effect: “Victory: Change.org Members Force Health Organizations to Back Away from Food Labeling Ploy.”

The new marketing program, called “Smart Choices,” is a front-of-the-package nutrition-labeling program designed in theory to help shoppers make smarter food choices.

But as the New York Times exposed last week, the selections are anything but healthy. One of the selections is Froot Loops, which was chosen, according to one board member, because “it’s better for you than donuts.” (No, we’re not kidding. We couldn’t make this up.)

Despite the program’s dubious standards, it maintained the appearance of legitimacy because researchers associated with three reputable organizations – American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University – were on its board.

In response, thousands of Change.org members sent letters to the presidents of these three major research institutions urging them to remove their name from the program.

The result? All three organizations responded to the pressure this week by publicly distancing themselves from the food labeling scheme and officially asking Smart Choices to remove their name from its website and marketing materials – thereby publicly embarrassing and discrediting the program.

Fine, but this one isn’t over until the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) also extricates from its commitment to manage the program – a clear conflict of interest.

3.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is asking for nominations to a committee to study front-of-package labeling (what follows is edited from the request letter):

The IOM is searching for experts in the scientific, technical, and medical professions to be considered for a study committee titled Examination of Front of Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (Phase I). The sponsors are the CDC and FDA.   The Phase I committee will undertake a review of front-of-package nutrition rating systems and symbols…[and] will also plan for a Phase II.

Phase I will (a) identify front-of-package systems being used, (b) consider their purpose and overall merits, (c) identify the criteria underlying the systems and evaluate their scientific basis, (d) consider advantages and disadvantages, (e) plan Phase II which will consider the potential benefits of a single, standardized front-of-package food guidance system regulated by FDA (my emphasis).

Send the names of candidates to front-of-pack@nas.edu by October 5, 2009. You do not need to contact the individuals you nominate.

This is great news but I’m way too impatient.  This two-phase process will take years. Is the FDA really going to have to wait that long to take action on front-of-package labels such as Smart Choices?

FDA: How about issuing a moratorium on all front-of-package labels until the committees do their work?

4.  Update, September 24: On that very issue, Congresswoman Rosa de Lauro has asked the FDA to do an investigatation of the Smart Choices program.  Excellent idea!

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