If you don't like the way food products are currently labeled, you have a lot of company. According to a Food and Drug Administration survey a lot of people would like to have it overhauled.
So would Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) who has introduced legislation which would do just that. Two bills would shift the emphasis in nutrition labeling from micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates.)
The South Dakota senator's primary interest in nutrition, documented in the revolutionary Dietary Goals for the United States put out by his Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, has always been with macronutrients.
Controversial as those goals were, and still are in some circles, the federal government has come up with similar recommendations in the Surgeon General's Report on disease prevention.
McGovern's bills, which have bi-partisan support, are aimed at helping people understand the nutritional content of food through labeling. They would make nutrition labeling mandatory instead of voluntary for all packaged foods. For fresh produce, meats and poultry it would be voluntary at the point of purchase. Nutrition labeling would also be voluntary for restaurants. One bill covers foods regulated by the Agriculture Department (meat and poultry products); the other covers the food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Both bills call for full listing of ingredients, except for flavorings, calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, sodium and cholesterol content per serving. The format to dispense this information would be determined after two years of pilot testing.
The bills also call for a consumer education program to be administered by FDA.
There are some provisions in the bills which industry asked for and which McGovern agreed to, hoping it would gain their support of the bills:
Criminal penalties for mislabeled products would be dropped.
Industry could use USDA nutrient data to calculate nutrition information. Currently each company must run its own nutrition analyses for each of its products.
Some of McGovern's recommendations are similar to those which the FDA survey showed people are looking for. The changes most wanted are: a listing of all ingredients, simpler language in the list, an extension of the ingredient list to all products.
By a two to one margin those surveyed also wanted information highlighted on labels about things people consume too much of -- calories, cholesterol and fat. A number of people also wanted information about the sugar content of foods.
Contrary to some other reports that nutrition information on food products is used by as little as one-third of the public, this survey indicated that 64 percent of the sample use some of the nutrition information.
And more than 75 percent use ingredient information to avoid certain things like salt, sugar, fats, oils and preservatives.