Good things come in packages that spell out exactly how frosted those flakes are and how many veggies are in that vegetable soup. That's the message consumer advocates are promoting in a push for an international standard for labels that would list exactly how much, in percent, of certain ingredients is in packaged food products.
Not so fast, say the food industry and the Bush administration. The current U.S. system, which requires listing ingredients in descending order by weight, is just fine. Plus, nutrition labeling tells consumers how much sodium, cholesterol, fats and sugars are in a product, making it possible to count carbs, for instance. Anything more, they argue, could be tampering with "proprietary" recipes.
The issue is scheduled to be considered at a meeting in Rome next month of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standard-setting group composed of more than 160 countries. If it eventually approves a percentage labeling standard, U.S. companies don't have to follow it. But those with global trade would have to comply in countries that adopt the standard. And many countries, particularly developing countries with growing markets, adopt Codex standards because they lack the resources to set food safety and nutrition rules themselves.
The European Union has required disclosure by percent of the "characterizing" or main ingredient in a product since 2000. When shoppers pick up frozen breaded fish fillets there, they can check how much fish is in the product. In one case, the Birds Eye brand showed 55 percent fish on the label, while a competing company offered 70 percent.
This idea has been around in this country since the late 1970s when the Food and Drug Administration, Agriculture Department and Federal Trade Commission looked at whether they had authority to propose percentage ingredient labeling. But the initiative died in the Reagan administration.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocacy group, petitioned the FDA in 1997 to consider percentage ingredient labeling for all packaged goods, but it never got a definitive answer from the agency. The International Association of Consumer Food Organizations, which is led by CSPI, has lobbied percentage labeling since 2000 in the world forum.
Armed with a new report it compiled on the effects of percentage labeling and labels from other countries, CSPI, and a consumer group in Japan and Britain, stressed to Codex that such disclosure helps consumers make better nutritional decisions, buy the highest-quality product, comparison shop, and avoid inferior products. The report said such labeling creates competition among companies to produce higher-quality products.
"We have had ingredient labeling in order of predominance since the 1930s," said Bruce Silverglade, CSPI's legal affairs director. "The listing doesn't give consumers the information they need to make an informed decision," he said.
For example, he said, if it's sugar a person is concerned about, wouldn't it be essential to know exactly how much of a sugared cereal is sugar?
Take Kellogg's "Frosties," a popular cereal sold in Thailand. The label says the product is 39 percent added sugars. The U.S. version of the same product just says a serving has 12 grams of sugar, Silverglade said.
Regulators at the FDA, who are part of the U.S. delegation to Codex, oppose percentage ingredient labeling and will take their complaints to Rome. One is contention over the threshold amount of ingredient that would trigger listing.
They argue that listing ingredients by the percentage amount is tantamount to printing the proprietary recipe of the product for the world to see.
"Just giving a complete recipe list has problems for enforcement and it may not be the product consumers are purchasing," said Leslye M. Fraser, the U.S. delegate to the Codex Committee on Food Labelling and director of regulations and policy for FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Fraser suggested it is unreasonable to think the FDA could enforce the requirement.
In addition to existing labeling rules, there are federal "standards of identity" for many common foods that stipulate how much of an ingredient must be included in the product.
The only requirement in the United States for percentage labeling covers juices (producers requested this), peanut spreads, olive oil, meat on frozen pizza and shrimp cocktail.
"Our member companies universally oppose percentage ingredient labeling," said Peggy Rochette, senior director of international affairs at the Food Products Association, which represents processed and packed food manufacturers.
Rochette, who is also a member of the U.S. delegation, said percentage labeling is technically difficult because it is hard to be accurate, it's expensive, and it "puts unnecessary information on the label not related to health, safety, product use, or other material facts like nutrition." She said for products with limited ingredients, "it's viewed as formula information."
The Grocery Manufacturers of America also is fighting the proposed standard, saying the information will not drive purchasing decisions. "This doesn't prove a product is safer or has more quality," said Monica L. Gonzalez, director of scientific and regulatory policy for the trade group.
Robert Garfield, executive director of the National Frozen Pizza Institute in McLean, used pepperoni pizza to make a point. He said a survey done last fall showed consumers ranked quality and taste first in their purchasing decisions -- not the amount of meat on the pie. Besides, too much pepperoni can make the pizza oily, he said.
Silverglade said opposition is intense because developing countries, where big multinational food companies see much of their growth, are more inclined to adopt a labeling standard instead of creating one of their own. "This is the wave of the future as trade and regulation becomes more global," Silverglade said.
So if labeling by percentage one day became a Codex standard, domestic companies operating internationally likely would be counting the raisins in their raisin bran.