I will be discussing Let’s Ask Marion with Clark Wolf as part of the Fales Library Critical Topics Series at 5:00 p.m., via Zoom. It’s free but registration is required—here.
Forget FDA. Grocery trade groups to do their own “better-for-you” logos
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are announcing their “Nutrition Keys” plan for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels. Their member companies have agreed to display calories and percent of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, per serving, on the front of product packages.
So far, so good.
But they also will be displaying up to eight “positives,” nutrients that are supposed to be good for you. They say they will be using some kind of design similar to what some companies are using now, only with “positives” added.
Note: this illustration comes from Mars (the company, not the planet). It is not what GMA and FMI will necessarily use.
Let me repeat what I wrote last October when GMA and FMI first said they intended to do this:
Forget the consumer-friendly rhetoric.
There is only one explanation for this move: heading off the FDA’s Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling initiatives.
In October, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first of its FDA-sponsored reports on FOP labels. Based on research on consumer understanding of food labels and other considerations, the IOM committee strongly recommended that FOP symbols only list calories, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat.
This led William Neuman of the New York Times to summarize the IOM approach as: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”
GMA and FMI would much rather label their products with all the things that are good about them, like added vitamins, omega-3s, and fiber. If they have to do negatives, they prefer “no trans fat” or “no cholesterol.”
What they especially do not want is for the FDA to impose “traffic-light” symbols. These U.K. symbols, you may recall from previous posts, discourage consumers from buying anything labeled in red, and were so strongly opposed by the food industry that they caused the undoing of the British Food Standards Agency.
GMA and FMI, no doubt, are hoping the same thing will happen to the FDA.
At the moment, the FDA is waiting for the IOM’s second report. This one, due in a few months, will advise the FDA about what to do about FOP labels—again based on research. Couldn’t GMA and FMI wait?
From what I’ve been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA. This is what they had to do to get member companies to agree. They say the new labels will go on about 70% of branded products by next year. They also say they will spend $50 million on public education.
How this will play out in practice remains to be seen. You can bet that plenty of highly processed foods will qualify for “positives,” just like they did with the industry-initiated Smart Choices logo, may it rest in peace.
As I said in October: This move is all the evidence the FDA needs for mandatory FOP labels. GMA and FMI have just demonstrated that the food industry will not willingly label its processed foods in ways that help the public make healthier food choices.
Let’s hope the GMA/FMI scheme flunks the laugh test and arouses the interest of city and state attorneys general—just as the Smart Choices program did.
The official announcement is coming this afternoon. Stay tuned.
Addition: Scott Obenshaw, Director of Communications for GMA files the following clarification:
1.) In addition to the information regarding calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will display information about two “nutrients to encourage.” The two nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon must come from the following list: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein. These “nutrients to encourage” can only be placed on a package if the product has more than 10% of the daily value per serving of the nutrient and meets the FDA requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.
2.) Transfat is not part of the label – only calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content.
Let’s give GMA and FMI lots of credit for replacing the IOM’s recommendation for trans fat with sugars. Trans fats are heading out of the food supply and consumers want to know about sugars. So that’s an improvement. And two positives might not overwhelm the so-called negatives. But I’m eager to see what the design really looks like and will report as soon as it is released.