- The White House announced that the Food and Drug Administration will investigate and propose the development of a standardized front-of-package food labeling system.
- Advocates say FOP labels significantly help consumers avoid unhealthy foods and put pressure on companies to produce healthier products.
- The timeline for a standardized system in the US is still uncertain. One expert notes that political opposition and pushback from the food industry are expected.
The Biden-Harris administration is pushing for a standardized front-of-package food labeling system to help consumers make healthier choices and better understand the nutrition of the products they buy.
The Food and Drug Administration will investigate and propose to develop the FOP labeling system, the White House announced Tuesday as part of a 44 page strategy plan – Released ahead of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on Wednesday.
The move is to “help consumers, particularly those with less nutritional literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern,” the White House wrote.
FOP labeling can come in the form of star ratings or traffic light schemes, for example, the strategy plan noted. FOP labels don’t replace the more extensive and existing nutrition facts you can find on the back of products, but they do highlight key information to make it easier to identify healthier foods, advocates say.
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In addition to its push for a standardized FOP labeling system, the Biden-Harris administration said the FDA will propose updating the nutrition standards necessary for companies to declare their products “healthy.”
In a statement sent to USA TODAY on Tuesday afternoon, the FDA stood by its “plans to help empower consumers by providing more informative labels.” The agency added that it plans to expand research on FOP labeling, including monitoring FOP labeling and its impact in other parts of the world.
“We recently completed a review of the literature on FOP labeling, which provided foundational research for a potential symbol to represent the ‘healthy’ claim,” the FDA said. The agency is also “in the process of conducting preliminary consumer focus group testing of possible FOP schemes that will better inform us of what consumers think about such labeling.”
What does front of pack labeling do?
Marion Nestlé, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York Universitysays FOP labeling serves two purposes: to help people buy healthier foods and to serve as an incentive for companies to improve the nutrition of their products.
FOP food labeling in the US is not new, Nestlé notes, but a standardized system that clearly warns consumers “what is wrong with the product and what is right” would be. Other countries that have adopted this type of system have seen positive impacts.
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“We already have front-of-package labels, it’s those little tiny boxes that … tell you on the front of the package and how much salt, sugar (and) fat is in it relative to what you’re supposed to be eating, Nestlé told USA TODAY.
“It’s kind of a rehash of what’s on the (full nutrition facts label) and it’s so obscure that no one pays attention to it. That’s why the food industry put it (there), to avoid front-of-package labeling.” that the FDA was considering… more than 10 years ago.”
Success in other countries, uncertain future in the US
Nestle pointed out that prior investigation has found that FOP food labeling, particularly in countries that have placed warnings on the front of unhealthy products, encourages consumers to buy healthier foods and avoid junk food.
After Chile implemented its Food Labeling and Advertising Law in 2016, for example, a study 2020 found that FOP labeling led people to purchase nearly 24% fewer sugary drinks over 18 months. More than a third of Chileans also said the labels encouraged them to change their eating habits.
But there could be a lot of pushback in the US food industry and political opposition, Nestlé said, stressing that the timeline for developing a standardized FOP food labeling system is uncertain. Even if successful, the change could take years, he added.
The FDA said its research and the results of the current focus groups will help determine next steps.
“The clearest (FOP labeling) would be a traffic light: red, green, yellow… But the food industry will never allow red dots on its products,” Nestle said. “It’s hard to know where this is going to go. And it takes years and years … of rule making by the FDA. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
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While Nestlé supports FOP food labeling and stresses its benefits, it is concerned that “the burden of healthy choices still falls on people.” Other essential national policy steps could be marketing restrictions or implementing stricter regulations on the level of sugar and salt in products, for example, he said.
Biden’s plan promises that the “FDA will issue revised voluntary sodium reduction targets to continually reduce the amount of sodium in foods” and will “begin to evaluate the evidence for potential voluntary added sugar targets,” according to a conference of press last night run by the administration. officials
The White House is also pushing to improve the affordability of food, exercise
The push for FOP food labeling is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to “empower all consumers to make and access healthy choices,” which also includes expanding access to fruits and vegetables for beneficiaries from the federal SNAP nutrition assistance program.
Other action areas outlined in the White House strategic plan include improving food affordability, expanding food safety research, and increasing physical activity across the country, all toward the goal. of President Joe Biden to end hunger and reduce diet-related illness in the US by 2030.
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“This national strategy will serve as a playbook to meet this vital goal. It demands a whole-of-government, whole-of-America approach to addressing the challenges we face,” Biden wrote in a letter accompanying the strategy, adding that Wednesday’s conference will be the first White House Conference on Hunger, the Nutrition and Health in more than 50 years.
Contributor: Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY.