Industry combats FDA Nutrition Facts panel with own voluntary label

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 5, 2014 - In a move observers say is “no coincidence,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) unleashed a major marketing campaign this week to promote their nearly three-year-old voluntary nutrition label on the front of food packaging.

The release comes just a few days after FDA and First Lady Michelle Obama announced the long-awaited revamp of the Nutrition Facts label, which is mandatory and has not been seriously redesigned since the early 1990's.  FMI and GMA released their “Facts Up Front” label in 2011.

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"A recent literature review by the FDA tells us that front-of-package labels are most effective when reinforced by an education program," Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of GMA, said of the marketing push. "With more than 50 companies voluntarily implementing Facts Up Front on their branded and private label products, it's important for shoppers to know this tool is out there and that they understand how to use it. With Facts Up Front, we're simplifying nutrition so everyone has the essential information needed to help build more healthful diets."

Along with a widespread advertising campaign that will run through October, GMA and FMI said they will also promote their labeling effort with an “on-line tool kit to help retailers communicate Facts Up Front in stores - the place where most purchase decisions are made.”

Manufacturers participate in the program place four basic icons on the front of their packages, indicating the product's calorie, saturated fat, sodium and sugar content. Manufacturers could also choose to include up to two “nutrients to encourage” section on their labels, noting the product's potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium or iron.

But consumer advocates say GMA and FMI's voluntary effort is not enough to protect Americans from unhealthy food choices. “Facts Up Front is a joke that should be roundly ignored by the FDA and the Administration,” Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael Jacobson said in a statement. “We need an FDA-designed front-of-package system that is mandatory, easily understood by even less-educated consumers, and science-based.”

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended FDA “move away” from inconsistent and unclear front-of-package labels in favor of one “that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.” The Institute said FDA should develop a single labeling symbol system to replace current systems - including the Facts Up Front label - and appear on all food and beverage products.

But experts say the task is much more easily said than done. According to Burkey Belser, the designer of the current back-panel Nutrition Facts label, FDA and graphic designers have tried and failed to come up with a simple symbolic system that would be understandable to all people of all educational levels and cultural backgrounds.

Thermostats, stoplights, smiley faces, check marks indicating the healthfulness of food products - “All of it was confusing,” Belser said at a recent Farm Foundation panel on nutrition.

Experiments with pie charts and simple graphs failed because FDA realized many consumers didn't have the math and literacy backgrounds to understand them. Red dots, indicating a particularly unhealthy food item, were misunderstood by consumers from cultures where red signifies good luck. For this reason, Belser said, FDA did not include front packaging labels in its proposed Nutrition Facts panel.

“It's an incredibly complicated label,” Belser said, emphasizing that FDA is charged with the difficult job of translating science into sound public policy. “How do we make it approachable?” he asked. “How do we make it easy to understand?”

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