The food industry rolled out Monday what it called a "monumental and historic" effort to put nutrition facts on the front of packaging for processed foods and beverages, a change executives said is designed to help consumers make sound nutritional choices at the supermarket.
"We developed this as an effective way to bring nutrition to the front of panel, so consumers can begin to build a healthy diet right from the start," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the majority of processed-food and beverage makers as well as retailers.
But the effort drew immediate criticism from public health experts, who said foodmakers were trying to preempt the Food and Drug Administration, which has been working on guidelines for labeling on the front of food packaging.
"You simply can't leave it to an industry with so much money at stake to label its products in a way to benefit public health," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Under the Nutrition Keys program, manufacturers will place an icon on the front of their products showing calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving.
In addition, foodmakers plan to include an icon for one or two of eight nutrients that the industry says should be encouraged: potassium; fiber; vitamins A, C and D; calcium; iron; and protein.
The food industry plans to spend $50 million on a public relations campaign to explain the new labeling, which will start to appear on products within months, Bailey said.
The Nutrition Keys will not replace the Nutrition Facts label found on the back of most food packaging, which has been required by federal law since 1994.
The idea is to bring similar uniformity to the front of food packages, which manufacturers and retailers have been plastering with an array of symbols and codes, in the name of helping consumers eat more healthfully and reducing obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other health disorders.
In 2009, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg declared front labeling a "top priority" for the agency and pledged to set science-based standards for the labels.
The FDA had been negotiating with the food industry in the past year, but talks broke down, according to sources familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly.
FDA officials were unhappy with the industry's plan to include the "positive" nutrients, noting that could confuse consumers and be used to make junk food seem nutritious.
"The problem with it is they can mask a food high in fat, sugar and salt and make it look better than it really is," said David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who oversaw the creation of the Nutrition Facts label. "This is a missed opportunity. The failure of the industry to come together with the administration and public health groups will only add to the existing confusion about what we should be eating."
For instance, under the industry's program, foodmakers can promote protein on the front of packaging, even though protein consumption is not a problem in the American diet - most people eat about twice as much as they need each day.
Marion Nestle, who teaches nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said a better system would be a science-based guide to consumers, similar to the "traffic light" icons on foods in the United Kingdom. Products with little nutritious value carry a red light, and healthy options have a green light.
"Most of the evidence suggests something like traffic lights is much better for helping people make quick decisions," she said.
A previous industry program to label foods, known as SmartChoices, was quickly abandoned in 2009 after it was widely panned by public health advocates and the FDA. Critics noted that Froot Loops cereal, which is 41 percent sugar by weight, was one of hundreds of products carrying the green check-mark symbol.
At the request of Congress, a panel of experts chosen by the Institute of Medicine has been studying front labeling and is expected to issue recommendations this year. The panel made preliminary recommendations in October that "positive" nutrients should not appear on front labels.
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency "commends the industry" for its voluntary system but remains concerned that the "positive" nutrients would clutter the package and "might lead consumers to infer that a product with relatively few nutritional benefits is healthy."
Asked why the food industry didn't wait for FDA guidelines, Bailey said, "The consumer has been waiting, and the industry has determined we needed to move and go forward to give the information she and he want right now."
Bailey also said the industry was inspired to act after an address last year by first lady Michelle Obama, who said clear front labeling could help parents make healthier choices for families.
The industry sought an endorsement from the first lady for its plan, but did not get one.