by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GMA(Grocery Manufacturers Association)

Jan 25 2011

“Singing Kumbaya,” GMA/FMI displays preemptive label design

I listened in on the conference call at which the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute announced their new Nutrition Keys design for front-of-package labels.

My favorite comment: We are all “singing kumbaya” here.  Nutrition Keys, they said, was the result of a” monumental, historic effort” in which food companies “stepped up to the plate in a big way,” “with 100% support.”

Why did they go to all this trouble?  Because “A healthy consumer makes for a happy consumer.”

Kumbaya, indeed.

The real reason, as I explained yesterday, is to preempt the FDA’s front-of-package food labeling initiatives which might make food companies reveal more about the “negatives” in processed foods.

Here’s what GMA and FMI say the new label will look like:

Four of these things are required: Calories, Saturated fat, Sodium, and Total (not added) sugars.  Packages can also display up to two “nutrients to encourage” picked from this collection:  protein; fiber; vitamins A, C, and D; and potassium, iron, and calcium.

Let’s give these food trade associations credit for listing sugars instead of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation for trans fat.  Trans fats are already gone from most processed foods.  Everyone cares about sugars.  But these are total sugars, not added sugars, which is what really matters.

And protein?  Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets?  We already eat twice the protein we need.  The rationale?  Vegetarians.   I repeat.  Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein?  Never mind, protein makes the products look better.

Nutrition Keys merely repeats what’s on the Nutrition Facts labels, only worse.  It makes the percent Daily Values practically invisible.  Which is better?  High or low milligrams or grams.  You have to know this, and Nutrition Keys doesn’t help with that problem.

Nutrition Keys, says the industry, is about “more clarity in labeling.”  Really?  Here’s what it will look like on a food package.

I’ve been collecting reactions.

Although GMA and FMI insist they they are doing this in response to the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, the White House issued this statement:

The White House, including the First Lady, recognizes these companies for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative. We regard their commitment to dedicate space, for the first time, to an industry-wide front-of-pack label as a significant first step and look forward to future improvement. The FDA plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts in the field to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed. We will continue to work on seeking solutions for the problem of childhood obesity in America.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was more forthcoming:

The industry’s unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA’s effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels.

Given that negative and positive nutrients will not be differentiated on the package, there is significant risk that these labels will be ignored.  An adequate labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods, and should not mislead them into believing that some foods are healthy when they clearly are not.

Reporters asked tough questions on the conference call about preemption of FDA efforts to do front-of-package labeling in a rational way (see my post from yesterday).  Perhaps space limitations made full accounts impossible:

Jan 24 2011

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.

Mar 18 2010

What are food companies doing about childhood obesity?

Food companies interested in doing something meaningful to prevent childhood obesity are in a bind.  Preventing obesity usually means staying active; eating real, not processed, foods; and reserving soft drinks and juice drinks for special occasions.  None of this is good for the processed food business.  At best, food and beverage companies can make their products a bit less junky and back off from marketing to children.  In return, they can use the small changes they make for marketing purposes.

Perhaps as a result of Michelle Obama’s campaign (see yesterday’s post), companies are falling all over themselves – and with much fanfare – to tweak their products.

GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION (GMA):  By all reports, GMA members applauded Mrs. Obama’s remarks.  GMA says its member companies are already doing what she asked.

Parke Wilde, a professor at the Tufts School of Nutrition (and food policy blogger), gave a talk at that meeting in a session dismissingly titled,  “The New Foodism.”  His comment:

I enjoyed hearing Michelle Obama’s talk, which was well written and delivered and fairly forceful in places. In my afternoon panel, I said grocery manufacturers would find some threatening themes in books and documentaries promoting local and organic and sustainable food, but that there is also much of substance and value. Then, Susan Borra [Edelman Public Relations] and Sally Squires [Powell Tate Public Relations] in the next session said that grocery manufacturers are frequent subjects of unfair criticism and have nothing to apologize for.

Take that, you new foodists!

MARS must think it knows more than the FDA about how to label food packages.  It is developing its own version of front-of-package labels. It volunteered to put calories on the front of its candies; its multi-pack candies ay 210 calories per serving on the front.  That number, however, remains on the back of the small candy store packs.  Mars’ new labeling plans use the complex scheme used in Europe.  I’m guessing this is a bold attempt to head off what it thinks the FDA might do – traffic lights.

KRAFT announces that it is voluntarily reducing the sodium in its foods by 10% by 2012.  Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (SpongeBob package) has 580 mg sodium per serving and there are two servings in one of those small boxes: 1160 in total.  A 10% reduction will bring it down to 1050 mg within two years.  The upper recommended limit for an adult is 2300 mg/day.

PEPSICO announced “a voluntary policy to stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012.”  In a press statement, the Yale Rudd Center quotes Kelly Brownell saying that “tobacco companies were notorious for counteracting declining sales in the U.S. with exploitation of markets elsewhere, particularly in developing countries:”

it will be important to monitor whether the mere presence of beverage companies in schools increases demand for sugared beverages through branding, even if full-sugar beverages themselves are unavailable…This appears to be a good faith effort from a progressive company and I hope other beverage companies follow their lead…this announcement definitely represents progress [Note: see clarification at end of post].

According to PepsiCo, this new policy brings its international actions in line with what it is already doing in the U.S.  The policy itself is voluntary, uses words like “encourage,” assures schools that the company is not telling them what to do, and won’t be fully implemented until 2010.  It keeps vending machines in schools and still allows for plenty of branded sugary drinks: Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk for example.

Could any of this have anything to do with Kelly Brownell’s forceful endorsement of soda taxes?

LOBBYING: The Center for Responsive Politics says food companies spent big money on lobbying last year, and notes an enormous increase in the amount spent by the American Beverage Association (soda taxes, anyone?).  For example:

American Beverage Assn $18,850,000
Coca-Cola Co $9,390,000
PepsiCo Inc $9,159,500
Coca-Cola Enterprises $3,020,000
National Restaurant Assn $2,917,000
Mars Inc $1,655,000

How to view all this?  I see the company promises as useful first steps.  But how about the basic philosophical question we “new foodists” love to ask: “is a better-for-you junk food a good choice?”

OK.  We have the Public Relations.  Now let’s see what these companies really will do.

Addendum: I received a note clarifying Kelly Brownell’s role in the PepsiCo press release from Rebecca Gertsmark Oren,Communications Director,The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity,Yale University:

The Rudd Center did not work with PepsiCo on their initiative to stop sales of full-sugar beverages in schools worldwide, nor did we jointly issue a press release. A statement released by Kelly Brownell in response to PepsiCo’s announcement was simply intended to commend what appears to be a step in the right direction. As Kelly’s statement also mentioned, there is still plenty of work to be done. It’s also worth noting that the Rudd Center does not take funding from industry.

Mar 17 2010

Michelle Obama to Grocery Manufacturers: Let’s Move!

The First Lady spoke to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) yesterday about her campaign to prevent childhood obesity.  According to one witness, Marian Burros, she scolded them – politely and with humor – but told them in no uncertain terms “to stop fattening our children.”

The GMA is a tough audience for messages about childhood obesity.  It represents the makers of processed foods and beverages who have much to lose from efforts to get kids to eat less of their products.

The speech itself is a masterpiece of tact, but Mrs. Obama clearly gets the issues loud and clear.  Here are some excerpts:

  • we need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.
  • this needs to be a serious industry-wide commitment to providing the healthier foods parents are looking for at prices they can afford.
  • what it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient, only to replace it with another. While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t.
  • it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids.
  • This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.
  • Parents are working hard to provide a healthy diet and to teach healthy habits — and we’d like to know that our efforts won’t be undermined every time our children turn on the TV or see a flashy display in a store.
  • what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?
  • what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition? That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner? That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?
  • if there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression. You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store.

Well done, Mrs. O.

Apparently, GMA members applauded her speech.  Let’s hope they act on it.

(Actually, they claim they are already fixing these problems.  More on that tomorrow).

As a mom, I know it is my responsibility — and no one else’s — to raise my kids.  But what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?  And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition?  That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?