PHOENIX — Two key trends in the food industry, collaboration and health, came together last week in the launch of a major new labeling initiative here.
The program, an industrywide voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labeling program, underscored how retailers and suppliers are attempting to move quickly to educate consumers and address growing concerns about obesity. But it also showed how trading partners are crossing traditional boundaries to work more closely together on select projects.
“We're about to be part of history,” said Ric Jurgens, chairman and chief executive officer of Hy-Vee, and current chairman of Food Marketing Institute. He spoke during FMI's annual Midwinter Executive Conference, which was buzzing with talk of how the new initiative will impact wellness efforts.
“This may be the most important food initiative that can have an impact on health,” he added.
The labeling program, called Nutrition Keys, will incorporate an icon to display key nutritional information on the fronts of food and beverage packages in an easy-to-use format. The information will include calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugar content. Also showcased will be “nutrients to encourage” that are important but often overlooked by consumers, including potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein. All of this information is seen as working in concert with the nutrition facts panel on products.
The labeling will begin to appear on packages this year, and the industry has planned a $50 million consumer education campaign that includes public relations, advertising and in-store marketing.
The boards of directors of FMI and Grocery Manufacturers Association supported Nutrition Keys in a joint resolution. The chairmen of those organizations — Jurgens for FMI and Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods, for GMA — held a public ceremony here to sign a document that laid out the basics of the new initiative.
The new program was widely reported in the general media, with some articles quoting critics who said certain elements could be confusing to consumers. But food association executives said the program reflected a positive and proactive stance on health.
“Our industry has stepped up to the plate in a big way to help improve public health and combat obesity, and this program is a very important step in the right direction,” Rodkin said.
The program was developed in response to First Lady Michelle Obama's stated goal of tackling childhood obesity within a generation, according to organizers.
Meanwhile, a number of presentations at Midwinter addressed the larger health and wellness topic from different angles, as speakers attempted to identify opportunities for supermarkets.
Wendy Liebmann, CEO and chief shopper, WSL/Strategic Retail, said supermarkets are on the right path with initiatives ranging from product health rating systems to in-store health clinics, and noted that drug stores are surprisingly vulnerable as competitors in this regard.
“It's stunning that drug stores don't own more of the health and wellness proposition, but they don't,” she said. “Supermarkets are making real progress, but the reality is there's more to be done. It must be in every aisle of the store. You must be bold.”
In another presentation, Marcee Nelson, president and founder, Pink Tank, emphasized the importance for companies to be viewed as health advocates for women.
“Women want to feel someone's on their side,” she said. “The opportunity is to change the mindset from advertiser to advocate. An advocate has a shared purpose, action and dialogue.
“The goal is still the same, to earn her wellness shopping dollar, but it's about a deeper relationship than buyer-seller.”