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FDA to Review Nutrition Labeling Programs

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We’ve heard it from others, have said it ourselves and now it seems the Food and Drug Administration is hearing it: It’s time to review nutrition labeling.

Yesterday, the FDA stated as much. Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced a sweeping initiative that includes the following:

• Reviewing existing labeling programs for violations of federal regulations;

• Drafting a set of nutrition criteria on which all existing and future labeling programs must be based;

• Commissioning an 18-month study to determine how consumers use nutrition labeling programs; and

• Opening a dialogue with the food industry to determine whether a single set of symbols is necessary.

Hamburg must have been getting an earful from critics of the ratings systems and programs currently out on the market, some of which admittedly are sorely lacking in credibility.

“Some nutritionists have questioned whether this information is more marketing-oriented then health-oriented,” she stated. “And judging from some of the labels that we’ve seen, we think that this is a valid concern.”

Certainly, the United States has attained a critical mass of nutrition rating programs, In the past three years, a fair number of symbols, guidelines and ratings have begun appearing on the front of food packages, ranging from those created by retailers themselves (Guiding Stars) to one of the more recent, introduced by manufacturers (Smart Choices).

Speaking of which, it seems Smart Choices was the straw that broke the federal camel’s back. Anytime an officer of the U.S. government names names, you know that’s the target. In this case, FDA commish Hamburg specifically mentioned Smart Choices at least twice in her opening comments. One does not have to read between the lines when she said this:

“The latest, and perhaps largest, front-of-package program, the Smart Choices program, has generated a fair amount of interest recently, with some public health experts arguing that its criteria are too lenient, thereby allowing products with relatively large amounts of sugar or fat, to receive that symbol.”

Don’t underestimate the FDA. There will be changes down the road. Hamburg said the agency has already mailed out letters putting the food industry on notice that nutrition labeling has become a priority. It was especially heartening to hear a government agency say that the objectives outlined today could be attained in months – not years.

Said Hamburg: “I think we can do better for consumers.”

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