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FDA proposes new food labeling laws


Sample nutrition label

When you shop for food, you’ll see the manufacturer’s nutritional claims or benefits of the ingredients within a product, usually on the front of a package (FOP), along with nutrition facts on the side or back of the package. But various labeling systems are used by retailers and food makers.

The FDA recognizes that the current non-standard labeling approach is likely confusing to consumers and does not help them to make healthy food choices. The FDA is now developing a new regulation to define the nutritional criteria that manufacturers will have to meet for front package ingredient claims regarding nutritional quality. The goal is have an industry wide standardized, science-based labeling system.

Food makers now use either a summary symbol system (logos, numerical scores or graphics that can be compared to competing products), or a nutrient-specific system (quantitative, evaluative information without comparative information), to label their foods. But food makers, grocery stores, trade and health organizations have all developed their own version of the symbol programs with different nutritional criteria.

In the United Kingdom, the government established certain criteria for food labeling and grocery stores began to implement the criteria voluntarily. The FDA hopes that this approach will work in the U.S. too, but is prepared to use regulatory power to enact a common approach.

In an October 2009 open letter to the food industry, the FDA’s Director of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, Barbara O. Schneeman, Ph.D., explained their intent in the letter:

“We want to work with the food industry – retailers and manufacturers alike – as well as nutrition and design experts and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health.”

While the FDA does have current regulations prohibiting inaccurate nutrient claims from manufacturers on the front of their packages, compliance is voluntary. Therefore, when a product has false or misleading nutrition related front package labeling, the manufacturer is not penalized.

The FDA’s Schneeman said the FDA “will consider enforcement actions against clear violations of these established labeling requirements.”

The food industry may need more of an incentive to comply with the new regulations as well (such as monetary penalties) if the current system is any guide. The limited power of the FDA is indicated in the heading of their letter: “guidance for the industry” with “nonbinding recommendations.”

Click here to review the letter.