Nutritional labelling - US watchdog ponders next move
By Ben Cooper | 1 March 2012
With Facts Up Front, US food manufacturers have looked to take the initiative of the kind of nutrition labels that should be used on the front of packs. However, at the same time, Congress commissioned academic research into what labels should be devised by the Food and Drug Administration. As Ben Cooper writes, the US food industry is now waiting for the FDA's verdict.
The US food industry has taken a proactive step on the front-of-pack nutritional labelling issue with the launch of its Facts Up Front programme, detailed in the preceding section.
However, while the industry was developing and launching Facts Up Front, research into the issue was being carried out by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the behest of Congress in order to inform future policy by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The findings of that research were published late last year and the industry is now waiting to hear what the FDA's next steps will be.
This section of the briefing examines the IOM's conclusions and looks at whether the industry approach will be sufficient to satisfy the FDA's aspirations for front-of-pack labelling.
The Institute of Medicine reports
The Grocery Manufacturers Association is at pains to point out that its voluntary Facts up Front labelling initiative is in compliance with all FDA and US Department of Agriculture guidelines. However, while it may be in line with all current FDA guidelines but the question is whether it will remain so.
In 2009, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced a raft of objectives on front-of-pack labelling which included carrying out research into the development of an optimum system for consumers.
This was carried out in two phases by the Institute of Medicine, with the second phase published in October 2011. The IOM concluded that federal agencies should develop "a new nutrition rating system with symbols to display on the front of food and beverage packaging that graphically convey calorie counts by serving size and a 'point' value showing whether the saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars in the products are below threshold levels".
It said this front-of-package system should apply to all foods and beverages and replace any other symbols currently being used on the front of packaging.
Critically, the IOM has advocated an interpretive system by which foods earn points depending on their levels of nutrients of concern. It added that the graphic depiction could be check marks, stars, or some other icon to be determined by the FDA, but it did not endorse any particular graphic or undertake comparison tests of different symbols. It said the FDA will need to develop and test potential icons and displays itself.
Now that the IOM research has been conducted, it is for the FDA to determine what course of action it will now take. It is now more than four months since the IOM research was published but there has been little firm indication yet of what the FDA plans to do, and where this will leave Facts Up Front.
FDA policy analyst and press officer Sebastian Cianci gave this statement to just-food: "FDA shares the industry's view that a single FOP format is desirable. FDA also shares the goal of an FOP system that has the intent of providing information to consumers to reduce obesity and chronic disease. FDA will monitor the FMI/GMA initiative, which along with other information and research (including the IOM reports) will inform our thinking about this issue going forward."
However, Cianci added: "We encourage the food industry to modify their FOP approach, as necessary, based on the recommendations from the IOM and on information from monitoring/evaluation of FOP systems currently used or being rolled out."
This would appear to be a clear indication that the FDA still supports an interpretive system, resonating with Margaret Hamburg's earliest comments on this issue in 2009.
GMA director of communications Brian Kennedy told just-food: "FDA has told us that it is anxious to see Facts Up Front in the market place and they want to evaluate consumer reaction."
One of the striking features of the progress of this issue in the US is that while the GMA states that it has remained in dialogue with the FDA, the two entities have effectively progressed on this issue in parallel, rather than in tandem.
While the industry has pressed ahead with Facts Up Front, the FDA has waited for the government-sponsored research and is still yet to make a decision. The wheels of government do of course turn more slowly than voluntary action, and industry reiterates constantly that it is speed and flexibility which are the key advantages of self-regulation and voluntary industry initiatives.
The result in this instance is that an industry system is up and running which does not conform to the recommendations of the government's research.
Campaigners, however, suggest that GMA has moved quickly in order to pre-empt government action. "The industry has the right to use its labelling scheme, but I suspect that GMA's motivation was to pre-empt the FDA's doing anything," says Michael Jacobson, director of consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. The GMA would suggest that it has acted promptly at the behest of the First Lady.
How long the industry and NGOs may have to wait for a clear indication on what the FDA will do next is unclear. "A precise timeframe for developing any new government-sponsored front-of-package labelling system has not been set," Cianci says. However, FDA continues to work diligently to ensure that correct, easy to understand, easy to use information is available to consumers."
Two factors will determine the future for front-of-pack nutritional labelling in the US, and they are connected. One is the level of market coverage Facts Up Front gains and the degree of support it receives from consumers, public health organisations, policymakers and other stakeholders.
The second is what the FDA will do now that the IOM research is completed. It has several options. It could continue on the path of developing an official uniform system of its own; urge industry to come up with a system, whether a new initiative or a revised form of Facts Up Front, which follows more closely the model outlined in the IOM reports; or leave things as they are, effectively giving industry more time to prove that Facts Up Front is effective.
The first of these three options would be a long-term process. As Michael Jacobson points out: "Even if the FDA decided to propose its own national mandatory labelling scheme, it would take many years to implement. The FDA does not, and cannot, move quickly on important policies."
The second option could hardly be viewed as an overly a draconian response. It would be supporting an industry-led system but on certain conditions based on research requested by Congress from a highly respected health body.
That said, Facts Up Front is only just hitting the market, has involved a significant investment by the industry in its implementation and related public education work, and was developed at least partly in response to government calls for voluntary action. Margaret Hamburg has not been averse to taking a firm hand with the food industry, but it would be a major intervention if the FDA were to immediately call for industry to overhaul or replace its relatively new system. There appears a reasonable likelihood therefore that the FDA will allow for an extended period of evaluation of Facts Up Front.
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