Blog: Dean BestFDA "crackdown" shows how political wind has changed

Dean Best | 8 March 2010

When it comes to ensuring that food is marketed responsibly, the US food industry is no longer being left to its own devices.

Last week, US consumer advocates welcomed a regulatory "crackdown" against how some manufacturers market health claims on their products. Nestle, Schwan's and Diamond Foods were among a raft of companies that received warning letters over "misleading" claims and were ordered to change labels or face action.

"The previous administration tolerated such shenanigans, but I hope that the party is now over," Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director at the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, remarked last week.

There is no doubt that the political wind has changed direction in the US. President Obama's appointment of Dr Margaret Hamburg, a paediatrician, as the new head of the FDA underlined how central nutrition and tackling obesity is to his administration. The First Lady has also been vocal on these issues.

Last week's "crackdown" from the FDA was a further sign of the importance the Obama administration is placing on health and nutrition and on fighting obesity. Combine this ideological shift with the failure of some industry-led initiatives, notably last autumn's scrapping of the Smart Choices Program, and there is little doubt that the current administration will look to grab more and more control over how food is marketed to consumers.

On Wednesday (10 March), regulatory officials in the UK will meet to discuss plans for a "hybrid" scheme for front-of-pack labelling. Nutritional labelling has long been a topic of fierce debate in the UK, with manufacturers, and the country's largest retailer, Tesco, backing one system, while other retailers favour another - or a combination of the two.

However, amid concern that different labels cause confusion for shoppers, the FSA has formalised its proposals for a hybrid scheme that would combine the words 'high, medium, and low' with traffic-light colours and Guideline Daily Amounts (or GDAs) in percentage terms. The FSA has also called for portion size to be presented "in an easily identifiable way".

The Food and Drink Federation, the body representing UK manufacturers, said it wanted to wait until Wednesday's meeting of the FSA board before commenting on the plans, although its counterparts at the British Retail Consortium had no such qualms, arguing it "made no sense" for the UK to bring in plans before a decision is made at European level.

Nevertheless, given that the FSA's plans include such a "hybrid" approach will be seen as something of a victory for the likes of Tesco, for so long an opponent of the regulator's favoured traffic-light scheme.

If the FSA board backs the proposals, the recommendations will then be taken to UK government ministers. Regulators and legislators across the Atlantic, with labelling a hot topic in the US, will be watching events closely.


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