Front-of-Package Rating System Government’s Next Tool in “Guiding” Consumers’ Food Choices?

Commodus from "Gladiator"

Cross-posted by Forbes.com at WLF’s Contributor Page 

A recent study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has offered the federal government a new way to pass judgment on the food choices of American consumers. The study suggests a visual check-mark system be mandated for the front of food packages where the government can give its thumbs up or thumbs down based on nutrition criteria it sets.

Will the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) thrill all the food activists and implement this approach to labeling? But before considering that, let’s take a quick look at how we got to this point on “front of package” (FOP) labeling.

In 2009, FDA issued informal guidance on FOP labeling as food producers began to place nutrient content, calories, and other information on the front of packages. FDA indicated it was beginning to formulate rules for FOP labeling, but did not discourage industry efforts to pursue a voluntary, uniform FOP labeling program. In January 2011, industry leaders introduced “Nutrition Keys,” which has since been refashioned and renamed “Facts Upfront.”

Facts Upfront has predictably been blasted by food activists as a cynical effort to somehow forestall federal mandates, something WLF took issue with here back in June.

Then in October, IOM issued the second of two reports on FOP labeling. IOM called for a “fundamental shift in strategy” to one that uses an “Energy Star-like” visual symbol to “encourage healthier food choices” and “motivate food and beverage companies to reformulate their products to be healthier.” The FOP label would show the calories per serving, and then award 0-3 “points” (IOM suggests check marks or stars) based entirely on saturated and trans-fats, sodium, and added sugar. If the food product contains an “excessive” amount of any one of those substances, it would get zero checks.

IOM’s proposal is quite a step away from current food labeling mandates, which require producers to provide factual information. The label, which is, after all privately owned property, would become a federal forum on which government can pass judgment on the product’s worth. No checks on a soda or Twinkie won’t convey the proper message of “eat in moderation;” instead, it would likely be interpreted as “bad, don’t consume ever.” Such FOP mandates would raise interesting constitutional issues involving producers’ First and Fifth Amendment rights.

In addition to the philosophical or constitutional objections that will arise, a FOP check mark system would face other substantial hurdles. As IOM itself acknowledges, current FDA food labeling regulations would have to be changed for the fats/sodium/sugar points approach to be used effectively. There are currently no regulatory criteria for “low” added sugar or “low” trans-fats. Also, if current FDA regulations are used, many foods and beverages which meet the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and are eligible for federal Women Infant and Children program funds would not be eligible for any FOP checks.

So an already overburdened FDA would have to alter numerous regulations on the road to even drafting the type of FOP labeling program IOM suggests. Even if it got that far, it would have to navigate a long, contentious political and lobbying battle over every aspect of the program.

The main questions that must be asked in this time of budget crisis, however, are: will this really work? and is this worth it?  Consider a study recently released by the European Union “Food Labeling to Advance Better Education for Life.” A nutrition labeling  audit of 84 stores and 37,000 products tested how consumers perceive and use food labels. The news overview of the study states:

When information was provided on key nutrients (i.e. fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt) and energy, most consumers were able to correctly rank products according to healthiness. Additional information, such as Health Logos, GDA or Traffic Lights, only marginally improved the accuracy of this ranking. Consumers in the study said they preferred labels that provide complete information, but consumer liking and intention to use these labels, was not translated into actual product choices.”

Take another look at the Facts Upfront label above. Information on those key nutrients is there. Reflecting that information in the form of a simplified symbol or rating, according to this study, doesn’t have much impact. So why should federal officials spend countless millions of dollars developing a FOP labeling mandate which, in the end, does little or nothing to improve public health?

Regulators and activists should set their knee-jerk suspicion of, or opposition to, voluntary programs like Facts Upfront aside, and give such self-regulation a chance before pursuing mandated FOP labeling.

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