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FDA Asks Groups to Consider Food Labels

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ANDREW BRIDGES | September 10, 2007 06:28 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Next month, General Mills Inc. and Kellogg Co. will begin emblazoning their breakfast cereals with symbols that summarize complex nutritional information _ part of the growing use of logos to steer harried grocery shoppers toward healthier choices.

The proliferation of such symbols is a worldwide phenomenon, with government regulators in Britain, Sweden and elsewhere establishing logo systems that concisely indicate how nutritious food products are. In the United States, however, corporations have been left to devise their own schemes. That's led to a patchwork of systems that some fear further confuses consumers already unsure about how to eat wisely.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration took a first step toward clearing matters up, inviting food companies, trade groups, watchdog organizations, medical experts and its overseas counterparts to share how front-label symbols, like the "traffic light" system used in Britain, can improve public health.

The FDA stressed the meeting was a preliminary step as it considers whether to establish a national symbol system. Any action is likely years away _ and, even then, any system is likely to be voluntary.

Absent federal action, food manufacturers and retailers have taken matters into their own hands. PepsiCo Inc. uses the "Smart Spot" symbol on diet Pepsi, baked Lay's chips and other products. Hannaford Bros., a New England supermarket chain, uses a zero to three-star system to rate more than 25,000 food items it sells. And in Britain, the government has persuaded some food companies to use a ranking system with green, yellow and red lights to characterize whether a food is low, medium or high in fat, salt and sugar.

"A whole range of consumers like it and can use it. And the important thing is that we know that it is actually changing what is happening in the marketplace," said Claire Boville, of Britain's Food Standards Agency, citing increased sales of foods flagged with the green and yellow symbols. Last week, Hannaford reported similar results.

Tesco PLC, Britain's largest grocery chain, uses a slightly different symbol system that lists percentages of guideline daily amounts for various nutrients. It too has had an effect, as consumers sent sales of products like Choco Snaps and prawn mayonnaise sandwiches plummeting in favor of more healthful options, the company's Breda Mitchell told the FDA.

The General Mills and Kellogg's versions will be similar, highlighting fat, sugar, salt and other nutrient levels, as well what percentage each contributes to what consumers typically require, officials said.

Overall, there is little consistency among the competing symbol regimes in use, according to the FDA, as it works to glean more information about them.

"We really don't have adequate information about the various programs to understand how their criteria work and how they are used and understood by consumers ... and how they may effect market choice," said Michael Landa, deputy director of the FDA's food office.

While Landa said the agency is in information-gathering mode, one lawmaker said he would move forward with legislation compelling the FDA to establish a single set of nutrition symbols. The push comes as obesity rates continue to climb in most states.

"The proliferation of different nutrition symbols on food packaging, well-intended as it may be, is likely to further confuse, rather than assist, American consumers who are trying to make good nutrition choices for themselves and their families. FDA should take meaningful steps to establish some consistency to these many different systems of nutrition symbols," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, said in a statement.

A petition filed in November by the Center for Science in the Public Interest also asked the FDA to create a national front-label symbol system. Such a system should complement but not replace the sometimes dizzying information packed into the nutritional labels most foods now bear, said Michael Jacobson, the advocacy group's executive director.

"You could send a child to the store with 20 bucks and say, 'Johnny, you can buy whatever you want as long as it has a green dot _ and you can get one red-dot food,'" Jacobson said.

Absent congressional action, Jacobson said it could take a decade for the FDA to set up such a system.

National Dairy Council nutrition expert Ann Marie Krautheim said setting up a consistent system would be helpful, if grounded in science and tested with consumers to ensure it worked. Shoppers spend as little as two seconds evaluating food labels, research shows.

Krautheim said her Council's own research showed taste still trumped all for consumers when choosing what to eat, with convenience, cost and nutrition all vying for second place.

"The ultimate goal, of course, is that the overall dietary pattern that consumers select is a healthful dietary pattern," said Barbara Schneeman, director of the FDA's nutrition office.

But the corporate symbols now in use don't necessarily flag what's bad for you _ or even what's good.

"This does not say 'healthy.' It says 'better for you,'" said Richard Black, Kraft Food Inc.'s vice president of global nutrition, of the "Sensible Solutions" logo used on more than 500 of the company's products.

The FDA already allows food companies to use "fat-free" and other claims on labels. Those claims are voluntary, but are subject to FDA regulation. Likewise, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and food companies want the use of symbols to remain voluntary.

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On the Net:

FDA public hearing information: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/comm/registe6.html