Improving quality of food labels a priority for 2010 – National Consumers League

The final post in a four-part series, in which we present the food issues we anticipate will affect American consumers the most in 2010.

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Over the past several years, health claims on food labels have gained significant traction as an advertising tool, and products bearing such statements now litter the marketplace, boosted by a greater national attention to the obesity epidemic and relative inaction on the Food and Drug Administration’s part in reining in these advertising hooks. In the fall of 2008, the National Consumers League sent a letter to the FDA Commissioner (at the time – he’s since been replaced by Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg) Andrew von Eschenbach, drawing attention to General Mills’ use of drug-like claims about the cholesterol-lowering benefits of consuming Cheerios® – an action which prompted the agency to issue a warning letter to General Mills the following spring. Additionally, to deter the use of exaggerated claims by General Mills – and others – in the future, in September of 2009 NCL sued General Mills for claiming that eating Cheerios® would reduce total and “bad” cholesterol, a suit that currently awaits trial in the District of Columbia’s local court. Consumers should look to see the suit settled, and – ideally – a precedent set, sometime this year.

Later in fall 2009, shortly after NCL filed its lawsuit, the issue of front-of-package labeling gained widespread attention when a number of actors called for an FDA investigation of the “SmartChoices” program, leading the agency to announce its plan to better regulate such claims and the extensive group of participating manufacturers to suspend the program – at least for the time being. In its letter to the food industry, the FDA announced that it will develop a set of science-based standards to guide manufacturers in making front-of-package claims, in addition to determining whether particular labeling claims currently used on packaging are misleading, and the Smart Choices program announced it would voluntarily postpone operations. While the agency will not initially use regulatory tools to mandate new labeling standards, it has not ruled out such measures, should the industry not align its claims with the new guidelines. The FDA has also announced that it will continue to conduct consumer research to inform its work.

The FDA has not made its timeline for this work public; however, the Web site for First Lady Michelle Obama’s new “Let’s Move” initiative announced that the agency will complete guidance by the end of this year. Consumers should expect – and push for – industry action to follow. It is time to stem the tide of weak health claims that currently overwhelm consumers and detract from the usefulness of legitimate claims on truly nutritious products. Furthermore, the front of the package is not the only location where nutrition-related claims and statements can mislead consumers; while the nutrition facts panel provides critical information, it is not as user-friendly as it might be, and the current format enables food manufacturers to disguise some less appealing elements of products, such as moving added sugars down the list of ingredients by weight by listing various kinds of sweeteners separately, and claiming multiple servings for items conducive to single-serving consumption, such as 16 and 20 ounce beverages.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently published a suggested nutrition facts label makeover, which would rectify problems such as these and make the panel more useful to – and accurate for – consumers. An updated nutrition facts panel is long overdue, and deserving of the FDA’s attention in 2010. Regardless of whether the agency acts in the coming year, consumers should anticipate the issue garnering attention on the national stage, particularly with the publication of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.