Tuesday, December 16, 2008

FDA Watching "Smart Choices" Front-Of-Package Nutrition Label Program For False Or Misleading Claims

The Food and Drug Administration issued a "Dear Manufacturer" letter regarding front-of-package symbols in response to recent industry efforts to create its own front-of-package marketing program.

In the letter, the FDA reminded food manufacturers and distributors that there is an existing regulatory scheme with specific requirements regarding nutrition claims.

Readers of this blog will recall that a little more than a month ago, several food companies agreed to use a front-of-pack nutrition labeling system called the Smart Choices Program on products beginning next year.

The FDA intimated its intent to monitor the Smart Choice Program and notify manufacturers when front-of-package symbols explicitly or impliedly violate legal requirements for nutrient content claims. Such use would render the labeling false or misleading.

The Smart Choices Program has received a lot of positive publicity, and there is a huge PR effort to make Smart Choices into a consumer standard for identifying good food choices.

I think the effort is misguided. It is “just-another” industry effort to self-regulate and to limit the actual dissemination of information on good versus bad food choices. From its outset, the program would have a funding stream conflict of interest, as its source of revenue to sustain itself would be conditioned on the participation of food manufacturers. That funding stream would likely dry up if standards were too rigorous, or if foods that failed to meet standards were required to state their shortcomings on their front package labels. Even in Keystone’s Request for Proposal seeking an administrator for the program, it repeatedly highlights the need to control costs to participants and to minimize the burdens on manufacturers in the provision of nutritional information.

Michael F. Jacobsen, executive director of nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest recently wrote: “A disinterested funder and committee of experts free of conflicts of interest likely would have rated the healthfulness of foods differently from the ‘better for you’ Smart Choices Program adopted by the roundtable.”

A system that is not mandatory for all foods and beverages is inherently flawed and is no different from current laws that permit manufacturers to make product claims related to good health. Smart Choices will be just another of the 25 icon systems currently in the US marketplace that permit manufacturers to puff up their food's desirability with health claims.

Also, unless there is a “Dumb Choice” standard, similar to the “Traffic Lights” program in the UK, the system is neither meaningful nor comprehensive. Self-regulation is preferred by industry as manufacturers would not be required to disclose which food products in their portfolios are “not” smart choices. The FDA mandated Nutrition Facts Panel currently in use requires uniform disclosure for all products, favorable or unfavorable.

Pending in the Senate (and likely to die there in the 110th Congress), and part of Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) HELP America Act (S.1342, Section 421, Front-Label Food Guidance Systems), is a mandate for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to solicit public comments regarding whether American consumers would be better served by establishing a single, standardized, retail front-label food guidance system regulated by the FDA.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has also petitioned the FDA to develop a standardized system of symbols for front-label claims. The better route is establishment by the FDA of a directed, standardized, and comprehensive front-of-package food labeling program and icon system with unified criteria based on the best available science, and geared toward the public’s interest in health. It should apply to all foods and beverages, and not be compromised by dependence on industry funding or industry science.