THERE ARE two main forces pushing to improve nutrition labels on food packaging -- Congress and Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan -- but the two are not moving in tandem. It's more like counterpoint. HHS has released 400 pages of proposed food labeling regulations, which now undergo a required comment period. On the Hill, both House and Senate committees have reported out bills; these are hung up in maneuvering over their relationship to state laws, some of which already impose tighter labeling restrictions than the federal government is likely to want. The legislation and the HHS proposals don't conflict in serious particulars, though the legislation goes further toward adequate enforcement in a field where rules essentially play cat-and-mouse with imaginative advertisers. The regulations spell out some of the kinds of rules the Hill packages would mandate; they are the sort of work the FDA would be called upon to do once legislation passes.
Are both measures necessary? Supporters of legislation argue plausibly that the executive branch, despite its frequently reiterated promise to produce clearer guidelines, needs its backbone stiffened by a statute. Secretary Sullivan has done more than his predecessors to rev up reforms that have been floating around the agencies for most of a decade. But the prospect of quick legislation has had something to do with moving that process along. It's a ponderous procedure at best. How should the amount of fat and sugar in a product be indicated? How will the government define terms like "low-cholesterol" and "low-fat," and what about products that raise your cholesterol level, through fat, for instance, though containing none?
The administration has been noncommittal so far on the main substantive issue bedeviling the legislation. This has to do with its ability to preempt stricter state laws on such non-nutrition-related matters as freshness, ingredients listings, portion size and toxic substances in food. (The preemption of nutrition-related rules is already agreed on by both sides.) Here, too, the final compromise will probably need to involve some close line-drawing and definition-setting, in this case on what's relevant to nutrition and what's not. But what both the regulations and the bills will offer is more relevant food information about the amounts of such things as fiber, fat, cholesterol and sodium -- all now known to be vital to our health -- and a more understandable way of presenting it. These, and not the preemption of too wide a range of unrelated laws, are the proper goals of this reform.