FDA Commissioner tosses the gauntlet

During a press conference yesterday, October 20, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said she sent a letter to industry and Congresswoman Rosa Deloro (D-Conn.), outlining the FDA's guidance on the plethora of front-of-package symbols and nutrition scores being used by food processors and retailers to communicate the nutritional quality of foods and beverages.


Noting that the FDA's research shows that with the front-of-package labeling consumers are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts label, the agency said it is "essential both the criteria and symbols used in the front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed and helps consumers make informed, healthy food choices. "Some nutritionists are questioning whether they (front-of-package symbols) are marketing or health-oriented," said Hamburg, adding that the agency is analyzing front-of-package labels that appear to be misleading and also is looking for symbols that may be considered nutrient content claims.

 Citing recent news stories about the Smart Choices front-of-package labeling program as a reason for the new initiative, Hamburg said the traffic-light system used in the UK as a positive example of a voluntary program that provides consumers with easy-to-understand nutrition information that is based on common criteria and that a standardized label with updated nutritional information in the U.S. would be ideal for consumers. Dr. Hamburg expects a new label for manufactured foods will be available by the end of next year.

To ensure consumers are not confused or misled by front-of-package symbols, the FDA is drafting new legislation for a simple label defining nutritional criteria that would have to be met by food companies making front-of-package claims about a product's nutritional quality. "We are looking very seriously at this issue," Dr. Hamburg told reporters Tuesday.

"We want to work with the food industry - retailers and manufacturers alike - as well as nutrition and design experts, and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related F.O.P. and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health," the agency said in the guidance letter. "The UK system is the program that is the most talked about and the deepest as far as available information," said Ms. Hamburg.She added the FDA is launching a consumer research program to assess how consumers use the front-of-package symbols are how they are perceived.

"We want to step forward and offer leadership and provide standardized nutritional criteria for manufacturers." And although she said FDA is a partner with manufacturers, and a voluntary approach, she also warned that over time FDA would take action against egregious inaccurate claims on labels.