The Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, urged yesterday that practically all foods sold -- including fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, meats, poultry and even meals in restaurants -- be required to display a label disclosing nutrition information.
Only foods served in institutional settings, such as hospitals or schools, foods of minor nutritional significance such as tea and spices and foods sold in small packages should be exempt from the labeling requirement, the panel concluded.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel also recommended a new format for the label, dropping the old emphasis on vitamins and adding details on types of fat and amounts of cholesterol, fiber and sodium.
The sweeping recommendations are part of a 355-page report commissioned by the Public Health Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and prepared by IOM. The panel's conclusions are expected to have considerable impact on the formulation of the Food and Drug Administration's final labeling regulations, according to an FDA spokesman.
In July, FDA proposed that packages of all foods it regulates list nutrition information. Under the current voluntary system, only about half of packaged foods give nutrition information.
By including restaurants, the panel's recommendations exceed FDA's labeling proposals as well as a bill passed recently by the House. Nutrition labeling for meat and poultry, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is not addressed by either the FDA proposal or the House bill.
"Given the persuasive evidence that better nutritional understanding can help many more Americans choose healthier diets, we urge FDA and USDA to mandate uniform, easy-to-read labels on packages or at the point of purchase for most foods sold in the U.S. marketplace," said Richard A. Merrill, professor of law at the University of Virginia and chairman of the 14-member committee.
Sharply criticizing the panel's recommendations, Michael Hurst, president of the National Restaurant Association, called them "impractical and ineffective," and said they would increase the price of restaurant food for consumers.
Restaurant food was included because of the large proportion of meals eaten away from home -- one out of five, the panel said.
The American Meat Institute, a trade association which represents the beef and pork packing and processing industry, supported the recommendations. William Roenigk, director of economic research at the National Broiler Council, said it was "premature" to require nutrition labels on poultry.
The Department of Agriculture, which has been reluctant to require nutrition information on meat and poultry, said it would review the panel's recommendations.
The IOM panel suggests that nutrition information on meat and produce items need not be attached to the product but only displayed on posters in supermarkets.
In many aspects, the IOM study is consistent with the FDA's proposed regulations as well as congressional legislation. All of those bodies call for the labeling of fresh produce and seafood, expansion of the nutrient categories to be listed, mandated serving sizes, definition of terms such as "lite" and "natural" and no mandatory disclosure of micronutrients such as most vitamins and minerals.
In addition, the IOM panel has recommended that words used to describe amounts of nutritional attributes such as fat or fiber content, be limited to four simple terms: very high, high, low and very low. It has also suggested including on the label only two nutrients from the list of U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances: calcium and iron. Instead of expressing them as a percentage of the U.S. RDA as is currently required, "very good source of," "source of" and "contains" would be used.