Firms bring nutrition labels to fore

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The food industry rolled out Monday what it called a "monumental and historic" effort to put nutrition facts on the front of packaging for processed foods and beverages, a change executives said is designed to help consumers make sound nutritional choices at the supermarket.

"We developed this as an effective way to bring nutrition to the front of panel, so consumers can begin to build a healthy diet right from the start," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the majority of processed-food and beverage makers as well as retailers.

But the effort drew immediate criticism from public health experts, who said foodmakers were trying to preempt the Food and Drug Administration, which has been working on guidelines for labeling on the front of food packaging.

"You simply can't leave it to an industry with so much money at stake to label its products in a way to benefit public health," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Under the Nutrition Keys program, manufacturers will place an icon on the front of their products showing calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving.

In addition, foodmakers plan to include an icon for one or two of eight nutrients that the industry says should be encouraged: potassium; fiber; vitamins A, C and D; calcium; iron; and protein.

The food industry plans to spend $50 million on a public relations campaign to explain the new labeling, which will start to appear on products within months, Bailey said.

The Nutrition Keys will not replace the Nutrition Facts label found on the back of most food packaging, which has been required by federal law since 1994.

The idea is to bring similar uniformity to the front of food packages, which manufacturers and retailers have been plastering with an array of symbols and codes, in the name of helping consumers eat more healthfully and reducing obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other health disorders.

In 2009, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg declared front labeling a "top priority" for the agency and pledged to set science-based standards for the labels.

The FDA had been negotiating with the food industry in the past year, but talks broke down, according to sources familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly.

FDA officials were unhappy with the industry's plan to include the "positive" nutrients, noting that could confuse consumers and be used to make junk food seem nutritious.

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