CHICAGO -- The Food and Drug Administration is likely to underscore its enforcement of the new product-labeling law by making an example of a major violator, an attorney specializing in label laws said here.
Steven Steinborn, an attorney with Hogan & Hartson, Washington, said he believes the FDA's objective, because of its limited resources, will be to make the most of an enforcement opportunity. "So enforcement will be designed to make the biggest splash possible," he said.
Steinborn made his comments at the Food Marketing Institute annual convention and educational exposition. He spoke at the workshop, "Nutrition Labeling Is Coming: Are You Ready?"
The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which mandates new package labels, took four years from passage to enactment, so "there will be pressure for FDA to become the cop on the beat," Steinborn said.
"The media blitz calling consumer attention to the labeling program has also heightened expectations -- so serious enforcement is likely," he said.
Steinborn said he also expects FDA to go after a major violator at the processing level within the next eight to 12 months. Many violators, though, will get no more than a warning letter to mark the first violation, even though failure to comply is a felony.
Most inspections will occur at the state level, "and at least a dozen states have trained inspectors to enforce the new rules," he said. Asked to name those states, Steinborn listed California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, Texas and several New England states, which he did not specify.
Inspections will be conducted by federal, state and local agencies. The agencies will not go into retail stores, but retailers with private-label packing facilities will be included in the inspections, Steinborn said.
"But inspectors at all levels are still learning the rules and it's likely that coordination will be difficult and interpretations of the law may differ," he said.
Jeanine Sherry, president of New Wellness, which provides nutritional services to Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., said Ukrop's plans to use nutritional labels as a marketing tool. Sherry spoke at the same workshop.
Ukrop's has offered nutritional information through its "Appetites for Health" program for the past seven years, Sherry said, and it plans to adapt its labels to the new federal requirements.
The 22-store chain also utilizes nutritional labels on products in its in-store bakeries and service delicatessens, Sherry said, as well as on its salad bars. It plans to add similar information on bulk-bin displays of rolls and bagels.
"We're focusing our labeling efforts on items that are exempted from the new laws," Sherry said, "because if most of the packaged products in the store have nutritional labels and items in the deli or bakery do not, consumers may question the value of the perishable products."
Ukrop's offers a nutritional hotline, which averages between 150 and 200 telephone calls per month. "Although it's too soon after the new labeling law to have seen any impact, it'll be interesting to see if the number of calls goes up," she said.
Jon Seltzer, vice president of industry and government relations for Supervalu, Minneapolis, said he believes the new labeling law is an opportunity for independent operators.
"Customers are asking questions about what's in the food they eat," he said. With the nutritional information listed on packaged goods, there is an opportunity to bring customers closer to the store's deli and bakery by adding nutritional labels to items in those sections.