As US food companies and campaigners await the publication today (13 Oct) of research into front-of-pack food labelling by the Institute of Medicine, Ben Cooper looks at how industry is engaging both with government agencies and public interest groups on the food labelling issue and on advertising food to children.

Willingness to debate constructively with external stakeholders is seen as a measure of commitment to corporate responsibility, so the US food industry is undoubtedly being judged on how it engages with consumer groups on today’s most contentious issues such as food labelling and advertising to children.

Both of these were among subjects discussed by a wide range of stakeholders at the National Food Policy Conference, held in Washington by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) last month.

This event has a fairly good pedigree with regard to inter-stakeholder dialogue. This is the 33rd year for the conference which is convened by the CFA in cooperation with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) as a forum for consumer advocates, government representatives and industry to come together to discuss national food policy.

Interestingly, in spite of the apparent sustained criticism food companies receive from activists about the way food is produced and marketed, the conference saw industry representatives and consumer campaigners engage in what was generally viewed as constructive debate about the issues and possible solutions. Indeed, Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the CFA, suggested relations between consumer campaigners and the industry are currently less “adversarial” than they have been at times in the past. “In recent years there have been more areas where we’ve found common ground than in the past,” Waldrop says.

This may come as a surprise. While there is considerable consensus between industry and public interest groups on areas such as food safety, on labelling and children’s advertising they remain a long way apart. “There are still some areas of disagreement. I wouldn’t say were holding hands on every single issue,” Waldrop concedes. “But there have been areas where we have been able to work together and both sides recognise the usefulness of doing that.”

For the industry, it has arguably never been more important to engage constructively. The Obama administration is committed to federal government intervention to tackle problems like childhood obesity, which was underlined by the presence of some high-calibre government representatives at the conference.

For example, participating in the session on children’s advertising was David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. The FTC, along with three other federal agencies, is currently developing voluntary guidelines for the advertising of food to children. Also speaking at the conference were Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the US department of agriculture (USDA) and Samuel Kass, senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives at The White House. Jessica Leighton, chief science advisor at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), addressed the conference on the issue of food labelling.

The high-level representation also serves to illustrate President Obama’s commitment to a ‘big tent’ consensus-based approach. Indeed, Waldrop believes the conference represents precisely the kind of constructive dialogue between government, industry and NGOs that the administration is seeking.

Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), acknowledges that there is more constructive dialogue between industry and other stakeholders but suggests this is in part a strategic shift on the part of industry given the marked change of stance from the previous administration.

“I think the food industry has decided it’s time to extend an olive branch and work with the government. In general, the industry realises this is a good time to start being polite and at least appear cooperative,” says Silverglade. While he acknowledges industry support for some Obama-led initiatives, Silverglade points to the gulf that still exists between industry and consumer groups on front-of-pack labelling and advertising.

The government agency with direct responsibility for food labelling is the FDA which is currently working both on reforming the nutrition facts panel on the back of products and developing some form of front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling.

At the conference, Jessica Leighton said FDA research suggested a little over half of consumers look at food labels and a front-of-pack scheme would target those consumers who are currently not looking at the nutrition facts panel. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have commissioned the US Institute of Medicine to conduct research into FOP labelling, the first phase of which is being published today (13 Oct).

In a speech at the conference, Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs at the GMA, said: “We must do our part to help consumers make healthy choices through nutrition education. That is why we are working with FDA to develop a science-based, front-of-package nutrition labelling system that makes it easier for busy consumers to make informed food decisions at the point of purchase and that can be broadly adopted by food companies.”

In addition to developing some form of FOP labelling, the FDA is also planning to make changes to regulations governing the nutrition facts panel which involves updating the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990. Leighton said these changes, related to how calories are declared and how daily nutrient requirements and typical serving sizes are calculated, could be passed into law by spring 2011.

Also discussed at the conference was how federal government might seek to influence how food is marketed to children. The Federal Trade Commission, the CDC, USDA and FDA are currently joined in an inter-agency working group looking at the issue. David Vladeck said the FTC had sent orders to 48 companies seeking information about marketing expenditures with the goal of measuring the success of self-regulation.

Elaine Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), also addressed this session, detailing the achievements of this self-regulatory initiative. “He [Vladeck] acknowledged that we are making progress at the CFBAI and that was good and I think he was pleased with the announcements that I made about changes,” Kolish tells just-food. “I think he thinks that there is progress being made in self-regulation.”

While Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI, acknowledged that progress had been made and that the CFBAI members had the best policies with regard to advertising to children, she said that self-regulation was still not working.

Kolish was keen to point out that the guidelines being discussed would be voluntary and the fact that the government was aiming for voluntary guidelines was indicative of an underlying support for industry self-regulation.

The National Food Policy Conference appeared to support the contention that there is more constructive dialogue between industry, consumer campaigners and government than there might have been a few years ago. But it also served to underline that dialogue does not always lead to agreement. The Obama administration clearly wishes to find consensus where it can and in particular bring industry along with it. The question is how far the administration will go in imposing its will if consensus remains elusive on contentious issues such as labelling and advertising.