With its new HeartGuide seal program, the American Heart Association is slapping a high price on good health -- and so far, the food industry isn't buying it. Designed to help consumers identify nutritious foods in the supermarket, the AHA "tested and approved" seal will be used on products that meet the association's criteria for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The first food packages with HeartGuide seals won't appear until February, but already the program is controversial. Recently 2,300 companies that manufacture crackers, margarines, spreads, shortening, oils, shelf-stable and frozen vegetables, or frozen dinners and entrees were invited to apply. And they were also invited to pay a hefty fee. Unlike the seals awarded by the American Dental Association, which are free, AHA's must be bought. In fact, companies with the largest market share in a product category could end up paying more than $1 million a year to participate. "It's very expensive," said John Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association, a trade group that represents the nation's biggest food manufacturers. A handful of large companies -- Kraft General Foods, Campbell Soup Co., Stouffer Foods Corp., Nabisco Brands Inc., and Procter & Gamble -- all said they are still evaluating HeartGuide before they take the plunge, with cost being one of the major factors in their decision. The way it works is this: Each manufacturer must pay an annual $40,000 "administrative fee," which covers product testing, evaluation, legal fees, insurance and other costs involved in implementing the program. This fee is non-refundable, even if AHA decides not to issue a seal to the company. An annual "education fee" covers the cost of public relations, advertising and promotion, as well as a 24-hour toll-free hot line. The fee is based on market share, with a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $1 million per brand per year. Advertising and promotion will put the HeartGuide program in the context of a balanced diet, attempting to alleviate the "good food/bad food" idea that approval seals on only some food packages might convey. All print ads will also inform consumers that the program has been paid for by participating companies. Joe Marx, spokesman for the AHA, said that with the educational fees, "here we have a chance to reach millions of Americans with a health message. It costs a lot of money to get this message out." Marx said that the tobacco industry spends $2.5 billion a year advertising "a lethal message," so in comparison, AHA's fees are "not a lot of money to spend." Mary Stiedemann, vice president of HeartGuide, pointed out that AHA will not garner any profits from the program, and that the association has already sunk a "couple million dollars" into it, which will take at least three years to recoup. What's more, while NFPA's Cady said he has "tremendous reservations with the program," Stiedemann said that "it's the job of trade associations to deal with problems. They may be hearing a lot of bad things {from member companies}, but many of their companies are also talking to us very intensely about participating." If big companies are concerned about the price, small firms are even more displeased. "The fee structure for the HeartGuide program looks like an extortion racket," charged Richard Sullivan, executive vice president of the Association of Food Industries, Inc., a trade group representing 370 importers, food brokers and small food companies. Sullivan is concerned that small companies will be forced to join the program so that their business won't slip away -- even if they can't afford it. The pressure it puts on companies to jump on the bandwagon "doesn't add anything for the consumer," he said. Stiedemann denied that the fee structure represents an "extortion racket," but agreed that the costs are "not a tiny amount of money" for a small company. Nevertheless, she said, "a small company could never do a project like this on its own. We feel they are getting something very significant." Sullivan also said that most of his association's member companies that bottle olive oil will be unable to afford the program fees, but worries that a seal on a rival olive oil might lead consumers to believe that that oil is somehow more healthful. Similarly, NFPA's Cady believes that since many manufacturers process food for both private label and store brands, consumers could possibly be faced with two identical products, a seal on one but not the other -- if the chain opted not to apply for the program. All this could skew market shares in strange ways, a factor that troubles people like Cady and Sullivan but fuels a program like HeartGuide. Stiedemann said that studies conducted by AHA have shown a "high level of consumer interest" in making purchase decisions based on acceptance seals. Perhaps the most striking example of the effect that a seal can have on sales was when Crest received the American Dental Association's acceptance in 1960. According to Bill Dobson, spokesman for Procter & Gamble, the toothpaste went from a 10 percent market share to the nation's leading toothpaste in two years. Dobson said that the day the seal was announced, trading of P&G stock was suspended because the volume was so heavy that the ticker fell behind. But Dobson is doubtful that there will ever be another seal scenario like Crest. Not only was Crest the first consumer product to receive the ADA seal, but the flouride-containing toothpaste was the first to be approved for its ability to reduce tooth decay, a problem that then effected 95 percent of the population, added Dobson. More recently, however, Listerine received the ADA seal for treating plaque and gingivitis, and according to Warner Lambert spokesman Peter Wolf, "consumption of Listerine has gone up significantly." Nevertheless, P&G Dobson's says that it is becoming more difficult to directly correlate sales increases with seal programs. The company clearly believes in them, however. P&G's Citrus Hill Plus Calcium orange juice carries the American Medical Women's Association's seal of acceptance, its Puritan Oil has received the American College of Nutrition's seal and boxes of Pampers are graced with the seal from the National Association of Pediatric Nurses and Practitioners (NAPNAP). Eileen McGrath, executive director of the American Medical Women's Association, said that the group's product acceptance program, designed to help women purchase safe, effective health products, costs applicants $12,000 -- a one-time fee. The American College of Nutrition, which thusfar has only accepted Puritan Oil and Mazola Corn Oil in its seal program, does not have a set application fee; it varies according to the out-of-pocket expenses incurred in reviewing the product. Products will be reviewed every few years when out-of-pocket expenses will be reimbursed again, according to Mildred Seelig, a physician who is executive director of the association. For both groups, the fees cover paying outside experts to review data, administrative costs, airfare and other general expenses. Companies that choose to promote the seal as part of their regular brand advertising pick up the tab, although the associations must clear the copy. "When you don't charge a fee, someone has to pay for it," said Jim McKearn, director of product evaluations for the American Dental Association's Council on Dental Therapeutics, which has put its seal -- free of charge -- on 600 products, most of which are used by dentists. "In the case of this association, it comes out of the dues of the member dentists." In the case of the Good Housekeeping seal, every product that gets one has to be advertised in the magazine. Applicants' products and their advertisements are reviewed through the Good Housekeeping Institute, which then either accepts or rejects them. "There is no fee to use the seal, but you do have to be an advertiser," said Liz Goulian, promotion manager for the Good Housekeeping Institute. Whether they are free or for a fee, Jim Moran, spokesman for the Campbell Soup Co., wonders where all the seals will lead. "Will the diabetes association do it next? Will the cancer society do it next? Are the food packages of the future going to have 20 symbols on them?"