The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute have announced the launch of a new industry-led front-of-pack nutrition labelling system in the US. Ben Cooper assesses how it might be received by policymakers and campaigners.

The continuing saga over front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling took a new and significant turn last week with the announcement that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) plan to develop a new industry-led FOP system.

The associations said they would be finalising "the details of the initiative, including the technical and design elements" during the coming months but that the new labels would begin appearing in the marketplace "early next year". They also said they would continue to consult stakeholders during the coming weeks.

The move comes after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took the initiative on FOP labelling last year, heavily criticising the industry-led Smart Choices programme which subsequently collapsed. FDA stated its intention to come up with standardised criteria for FOP labelling.

Research commissioned by FDA and carried out by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) was only published last month and the second phase of that research, looking at how consumers use FOP labels and the question of whether there should be a government-regulated system, will be published next year.

In the meantime, the industry has clearly decided the time is right to make a positive move.  Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs at GMA, says GMA had been "gathering input" from FDA, USDA, other health professionals and the IOM, in planning the move.  "We believe that our proposal is consistent with the goals that FDA has set out for a front-of-pack labelling system."

In addition to the first phase of the IOM research, which stated that FOP labels should carry information on four nutrient elements - calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium, FDA posted some limited guidance, along with a request for comments and information, on the Federal Register earlier this year.

FDA said it "is possible that a well-designed and science-based front-of-pack nutrition labelling programme could bring about significant positive changes in Americans' diet and play a role in lowering the incidence and prevalence of diet-related disease in the United States".

To be successful in achieving this, FDA said a front-of-pack label should be based on standardised science-based nutrition criteria grounded in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; widely adopted by food retailers and manufacturers; in a standardised format consumers can readily notice, understand, and use; and designed to enable consumers with a wide range of literacy, educational levels, age, and other characteristics to compare the relative healthiness of products within and across food categories in the context of routine food shopping.

Regarding the degree of consultation GMA and FMI had with FDA prior to its announcement, Faber says it would be an "overstatement" to say it had worked the details out in discussion with FDA but adds: "We are certainly collecting FDA input and making every effort to ensure that our front-of-pack labelling system is consistent with the goals that they have identified. We are confident that our front-of-pack labelling system will meet the goals of FDA and the principles of the IOM Committee and in particular that our front-of-pack labelling system will increase the use and comprehension of nutrition information and that it will be broadly adopted." 

While the FDA's work on FOP labelling is not over, it could well be that the administration is hoping the industry-sponsored scheme will provide the solutions it is looking for. When asked for its response to the GMA/FMI move, the degree to which it was consulted or involved and how it might affect the administration's future work in the area, it replied with the following short statement:

"The Administration shares the goal of having a uniform front-of-pack nutrition label on all food and beverage products. As the details get worked through, our hope is that the industry will develop a label that aids in consumer understanding and helps parents and other shoppers easily identify and select products that contribute to a healthy diet."

Dr Michael Jacobson, director of consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), suggests it would be expedient for FDA to support an industry-led scheme which could potentially meet its needs far more quickly. "The FDA would far prefer industry to do something voluntarily than have to promulgate regulation, and endure a long regulatory process and conceivably litigation."

However, Jacobson remains sceptical about an industry scheme meeting all the requirements he feels are necessary in an FOP system. Jacobson is certain the GMA/FMI scheme will be based on percentage of daily value (%DV) rather than feature the words, high, medium and low, or colours. Faber insists this is conjecture as precise details have not been finalised. That said, Jacobson has also expressed reservations about the IOM principles, in particular the omission of added sugar as a criterion.

"We don't know exactly what industry is going to do on its own," Jacobson says. "How effective it is depends to some extent on the graphics and the placement. But my feeling is it is not the most useful kind of labelling for consumers but would allow industry to occupy the field, to say that it's doing something and now we don't need government action."

Supporters of industry self-regulation often point out that voluntary initiatives such as this do have the benefit of speed and certainly the Obama administration has been keen to impress on all stakeholders that it is looking for action on childhood obesity. Faber adds: "I think everyone agrees that we need to move quickly if we are going to meet the goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation. Obesity is a serious public health crisis and we are moving as quickly as we can to launch a voluntary initiative to provide more nutrition information to consumers."

GMA and FMI describe their move as "unprecedented", suggesting policymakers and campaigners alike can hope for a fairly radical improvement on Smart Choices. Faber explains that it is the fact that it is an industry-wide commitment to placing nutritional information on the front of packs which makes it unprecedented.

Jacobson agrees up to a point. "It's a precedent in that the food industry in general is willing to put some nutrition information on the front of the package. It may not be the best information but it's a step and that could be very valuable. I tend to be more impatient." This final remark suggests the debate will be far from over even if, as seems likely, the GMA/FMI scheme receives some form of provisional endorsement from FDA when the final details are published.