US food campaigners have called for reforms to the nutrition facts panel

US food campaigners have called for reforms to the nutrition facts panel

The FDA's recently announced 2012-2016 strategic plan includes specific reference to both front-of-pack nutritional labelling and reform of the nutrition facts panel. Details of how the FDA plans to proceed remain sketchy, Ben Cooper writes, but the fact that these two items are firmly on the policy agenda ensures a lively debate will continue and possibly intensify during the coming few years.

Nutritional labelling has been a much discussed topic in the US in recent years and at the centre of the debate has been speculation over what the government regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, might do in this area and when.

The publication of the FDA Foods and Veterinary Medicine Program Strategic Plan 2012-2016 earlier this month makes things a little clearer - but only a little.

In addition to a raft of initiatives related to the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 and measures on product reformulation, the FDA's strategic programme outlines some critical policy intentions on nutritional food labelling with regard to both the nutrition facts panel and front-of-pack labelling.

So if the strategy is adhered to, food companies can reasonably expect something to happen on nutritional labelling during the coming four years. 

The fourth programme goal concerns consumer information and contains the objectives related to nutritional labelling, including provision for new labelling regulations for foodservice menus and vending machines to ensure appropriate nutrition information is available for "all foods sold in retail settings".

Industry and other stakeholders have been waiting for some time for an indication on what the FDA might do next on food labelling. However, the plan remains fairly scant on detail.

While there has been much discussion around front-of-pack labelling in recent years, reform of what food companies are required to include on the mandatory nutrition facts label has also been on the policy agenda, albeit perhaps on the backburner.

According to the new plan, during the 2012-2016 term of the strategy, the nutrition facts label will be "updated in light of the most current information about nutrition and health, including potentially giving greater prominence to calorie declarations. The manner in which serving size information, daily values and key nutrients are communicated will also be updated".

The FDA says it plans to publish proposed rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes and then publish final rules. This suggests there will be a consultation period when industry and other stakeholders will be able to respond to the FDA's proposals.

As food policy commentator and academic Marion Nestle opined regarding both the proposals to update the nutrition facts label and provisions related to nutritional information on menus and vending machines: "OK, but by when?".

The FDA is yet to respond to just-food's request for clarification on the timing for the publication of its initial proposals and the comment period. Given the speed at which the FDA has progressed on these issues in recent years, if the intention is to publish proposals, consult and then reach the stage of finalised rules by the end of 2016, it has little time to lose.

Food campaigners, notably the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have called for a number of key reforms to the nutrition facts panel, and chief executive Michael Jacobson says the organisation would participate in any consultation.

Among other changes, the CSPI wants to see 'sugar' replaced by 'added sugars', with the amount of added sugar given in terms of teaspoons and grams, and "calories from fat" removed. The CSPI also wants serving sizes to be updated and the daily value for sodium to be lowered.  

The food industry is also prepared for the forthcoming reform of the nutrition facts panel. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says it "looks forward to learning what changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel  the FDA is considering", adding that it will "provide feedback on behalf of the industry through the FDA’s public commenting process at that time".

Where the GMA has been particularly active over the last couple of years is in front-of-pack nutritional labelling and this too is covered in the strategy. Included as a key initiative in the 2012-2016 programme is the aim "to explore front-of-pack nutrition labelling opportunities".

This is an area where the FDA has already been active, vocally criticising some industry-led action in this area, notably the Smart Choices labelling programme which was suspended in 2009, and commissioning research by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to identify key criteria for front-of-pack nutritional labelling.

Given that both phases of the IOM research have been completed, Marion Nestle asks: "Explore? The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labelling. Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?"

Further consultation and evaluation certainly seems likely. Since the IOM research was carried out, the industry, under the auspices of the GMA and the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers, has developed a front-of-pack programme called Facts Up Front. 

Facts Up Front does not tick all of the IOM's boxes. In particular, it sets out purely to put over factual information, with no interpretation through colours, icons or words such as 'high', 'medium' or 'low'. The IOM advocates such an interpretive element be included. 

On the other hand, Facts Up Front does have the advantage of being already in place with substantial industry backing. 

Campaigners tend also to favour the inclusion of an interpretive element. Indeed, the CSPI even wants the reformed nutrition facts panel to include the words 'high', 'medium' and 'low' for some nutrients, though Jacobson concedes this is unlikely to happen.

However, Jacobson believes the FDA would be "wise" to take advantage of the fact that industry-backed systems, such as Facts Up Front, NuVal and Guiding Stars, are up and running and evaluate how these different systems are working in practice and how effective they are in influencing consumer behaviour.

The IOM option is "a decent system, as are some of the other ones being used", Jacobson says. "Because of the several natural experiments in progress, it would be wise to see which of those seems to be most effective at promoting healthier diets."

Ideally, Jacobson believes a research setting should be found to test the existing programmes against a system designed along the IOM's criteria.

The GMA is certainly keen for the FDA to consider seriously the merits of the Facts Up Front programme. Speaking to just-food earlier this year, the GMA's Sean McBride said the system was "fact-based" and "easy to use" and had the advantage of having been "extensively tested" with consumers. McBride also pointed out the GMA and FMI had had "extensive dialogue" with the FDA in designing Facts Up Front. 

The standing of existing FOP labelling schemes will be critical as this subject is debated over the next few years. In that light, the recent criticisms of the NuVal system by the National Consumers League (NCL) are noteworthy.

The NCL has sent an official complaint to the FDA stating that the NuVal nutritional ranking system is "misleading" and should be suspended. The scheme is being used in a number of major retail chains including Kroger, Meijer, Giant Eagle and Price Chopper.

The complaint underlines the strong differences of opinion that exist between various stakeholders over front-of-pack nutrition labelling. The FDA's strategy comprises an extensive and wide-ranging array of objectives, some of which will be challenging and contentious, not least it would appear its plans for food labelling.