Nutrition Advocates Urge Front-of-Package Labels Highlighting Fat, Sugar Levels
WASHINGTON—Nutrition advocates and food-industry groups are revving up for a fight over whether an additional label should go on the front of many packaged-food items to more clearly indicate whether they pose a health risk.
A long-running debate over what those new labels should look like—and whether they should be required—is intensifying ahead of a White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health later this month.
The Food and Drug Administration already requires most packaged foods to display a detailed nutritional label, but they are typically placed on the back or side of the item. Advocates want another, more condensed label on the front of the package that would visually flag certain health risks, such as high sugar or saturated-fat content, at a time of rising national rates of obesity among adults and children, as well as other diseases.
“We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health,” said Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog organization. “This is a chance to make that information more prominent, more readable and more useful.”
Industry groups say there is insufficient real-world evidence to show such labels would influence consumer behavior. They also contend the FDA doesn’t have the authority to mandate front-of-package labels, which they said could pose a First Amendment threat, because companies could view them as a form of forced speech.
“There really is a lack of robust evidence” to support advocates’ claims around front labels, said Roberta Wagner, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association, and some of the proposed labels would “demonize” certain foods, she said.
A spokeswoman for the FDA said last week that it “plans to help empower consumers by providing more informative labeling to help consumers identify foods that can contribute to healthier diets.” The agency said it is monitoring the implementation of front labels in other countries and starting to conduct its own consumer focus groups around front labels.
The agency also said it is working on updating the definition of a healthy food and developing a symbol to represent it.
An outside task force of 26 food and health experts said in their recommendations ahead of the White House food summit that the FDA should develop an effective front-labeling plan.
‘We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health.’— Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest
A footnote, however, disclosed that the task force itself was divided over whether such labels should be voluntary, mandatory or implemented in stages, and whether the labels should include warnings.
Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would require the FDA to create standardized, front-of-package labeling for all food that has a nutrition label, which excludes some food such as raw fruits and vegetables.
“People just don’t have the patience or the time to be detectives at store shelves, hunting for data that may be somewhere on the package,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), one of the bill’s sponsors.