January 26, 2011

Industry Debuts ‘Nutrition Keys’ Front-of-Pack Labeling System

American grocers joined forces with food and beverage producers to unveil a new system on Monday for placing nutritional information on packages ahead of plans from US regulators, who have pushed for clear and accurate labels to help fight the growing obesity epidemic in the United States.

The front-of-package labeling move by industry leaders caught the attention of critics, who questioned the move, saying it appeared to be an attempt to dodge federal regulators and to distract consumers from the unhealthy ingredients in some packaged food products.

The new program, a joint undertaking by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), is called "Nutrition Keys" and will list calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars on the front of packages.

The Nutrition Keys icon will also display, on some products, information about "nutrients to encourage" -- such as potassium, fiber, vitamins, calcium, iron and protein, the groups said.

The icons could begin appearing on packages as early as this July, they said.

Supporters of the program said it was developed in response to a request from First Lady Michelle Obama, who has taken on childhood obesity as her signature issue.

"We share First Lady Michelle Obama's goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation," Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive of the GMA, told Reuters.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. In some states, childhood obesity is above 30 percent.

Obese children are likely to have a shorter lifespan, which could affect their ability to work and pay taxes, and threatening to drive up healthcare costs. Obesity is also affecting military recruitment because people are too overweight and out of shape to serve.

Critics were skeptical about the new labeling program, partly because it fails to differentiate between good and bad nutrients. "The industry's unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA's effort to develop strong guidelines," Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro told Reuters in a statement.

DeLauro, the former chair of a subcommittee that sets FDA funding, was a stern critic of "Smart Choices" -- a controversial industry-led nutrition labeling program.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned companies in October 2009 that the agency was investigating if nutrition claims on the front of packages were misleading and called out the "Smart Choices" labels. Officials said they were developing a proposal for those labels and exploring if consumers would benefit from a single symbol to a give quick, accurate idea of nutritional content.

Many food makers including Kellogg Co, which produces popular children's cereals Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes, scrapped "Smart Choices" labeling shortly after the FDA criticism.

The Institute of Medicine and the FDA have been working to develop reports and potential guidelines for what type of nutrition information should be permitted and required on the front of packaging, said Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

There is a lot at stake, said Brownell. "Millions of people see thousands of products each day and deserve a labeling system that helps them understand nutrition information rather than misleads them," she told Reuters.

"It's unfortunate the industry wouldn't adopt a more effective system or simply wait until the (FDA) developed a system that would be as useful to consumers as possible," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group, said.


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