by Marion Nestle

Search results: front-of-package

Mar 27 2018

NAFTA negotiations put front-of-package warning labels at risk

Last week, the New York Times published an article about how the US was inserting provisions in NAFTA negotiations to restrict the ability of Mexico to put warning labels—similar to those in Chile and other countries—on ultraprocessed “junk” foods.

Urged on by big American food and soft-drink companies, the Trump administration is using the trade talks with Mexico and Canada to try to limit the ability of the pact’s three members — including the United States — to warn consumers about the dangers of junk food, according to confidential documents outlining the American position.

The American stance reflects an intensifying battle among trade officials, the food industry and governments across the hemisphere. The administration’s position could help insulate American manufacturers from pressure to include more explicit labels on their products, both abroad and in the United States. But health officials worry that it would also impede international efforts to contain a growing health crisis.

In response to questions by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Dem-Texas), US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argues that front-of-package labels are a form of protectionism.

Really?

A more compelling reason is that food companies are worried about the possible spread of front-of-package warning labels like those in Chile, Ecuador, and other countries.

I have a long-standing interest in front-of-package labels and wrote about opposition to the warning-label movement recently in a commentary in the American Journal of Public Health.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a statement:

More countries, and certainly the United States, Canada, and Mexico, should give consumers easy-to-read front-of-package labeling that quickly communicates the information they need to avoid diet-related diseases…This is not an “America First” policy; it is an “Industry First” policy, conducted at the expense of the health of consumers in the U.S. and abroad.

Julia Belluz (Vox) describes the effects of a provision like this on Canada’s front-of-package labeling proposals.

Mexico’s outstanding food advocacy coalition, the Nutritional Health Alliance, argues that this pro-industry effort to block warning labels poses a serious threat to consumer rights and public health.

It held a press conference last week on this issue and has produced background documents (in Spanish, but it’s always fun to try Google Translate):

Jan 30 2018

Israel’s Front-of-Package labeling scheme delayed (guess why)

The Israeli health ministry has developed a new front-of-package labeling scheme for foods to choose (green) and to avoid (red).  Here are the red labels:

The Israeli food industry, no surprise, does not want labels that might discourage purchases.   According to the Jerusalem Post:

Bowing to pressure from the local food manufacturing industry and importers via their lobbyists,
the Health Ministry on Wednesday decided to postpone implementation of reform it initiated last
year to mark food packages with red or green circles that will indicate whether or not the food is
healthful.
Instead of these designations being required in March 2018 as initially proposed, they will be
mandatory on only some products from January 2020. Requirements will become a bit stricter a
year later.

Here’s my prediction: front-of-package labels will be a big international deal this year and I will be writing about them often.

Hat tip to Bernard Epel of Tel Aviv University for forwarding this information.

Jan 16 2018

Front-of-package labels: Do they work?

The Hartman Group has a handy Infographic on the effects of front-of-package labels on purchasing patterns.  I haven’t seen this summarized so nicely anywhere else.

And here’s the whole thing.  It would make a great poster, no?

Too small to read?  Try this excerpt:

Dec 11 2017

USDA’s case studies on front-of-package labeling

The FDA is responsible for food labeling but in the peculiar way things get done in federal agencies, the USDA governs front-of-package labeling for organics and also gets involved in labels for non-GMO, no-antibiotics and those for country-of-origin.

It has just published a report on all this:

The report is a good place to learn about the labeling laws passed in 1990, and it has an interesting case study on GMO labeling:

It has a lot to say about organic labeling:

Do such labels influence what the public buys?  Yes.  (That’s what the USDA is worried about)

Does the public understand what the labels mean?  Not really. (The USDA worries about this too)

The USDA derives many conclusions from this study, but boils them down to this statement:

There are fundamental tradeoffs in how information is presented to consumers. If it is presented simply, then important nuance or complexity may be missed. On the other hand, if standards and labels attempt to convey complexity, then consumers may just be confused. Policymakers and marketers will need to consider these tradeoffs in the future when developing new process-based labels.

What the USDA does not discuss is the fundamental issue behind fights over food labels.  They work well to discourage people from buying products that may not be good for them or do not meet their values.  That’s why the food industry opposes them so strongly.

Dec 7 2017

The French food industry v. public health: front-of-package label

A colleague in France, Serge Hercberg, a nutrition professor at the University of Paris writes to say that the French government’s decision on October 31 to support voluntary adoption of a “Nutri-Score” front-of-package label is now under attack by the food industry.

Nutri-Score looks like this (A is nutritious, lower grades less so):

The food industry wants something like this (of course it does, nobody can possibly understand it):

My colleague writes:

However,a powerful trade group, which includes major manufacturers of breakfast cereals, candies and cookies, is encouraging its members to instead select another type of nutrition al label. The trade group’s position is aligned with that of six food conglomerates – Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever et PepsiCo (known as the “Big 6”) – who announced in March that they intended to develop an alternative system for the European Union.

With his nutritionist colleague, Chantal Julia, he describes in The Conversation what this fight is about.  I particularly like their example of how the two schemes help (or do not help) consumers choose between a yogurt and a fruit puree.

The Conversation article also comes in a French version.

Jun 1 2016

FDA: What is happening with front-of-package labels?

The FDA issued its final rules for the Nutrition Facts panels, but now I want to know: What ever happened to its front-of-package (FOP) initiatives?

The New York Times editorial on the new food label raised this very question.

But the labels, which most food companies will have to use by July 2018, still have serious limitations. They require busy shoppers to absorb a lot of facts, not all of which are equally important, and then do the math themselves while standing in the grocery aisle. And the labels are on the back of the package, where only the most motivated shoppers will look.

The editorial refers to the FDA’s front-of-package initiatives early in the Obama administration.  These involved two reports from the Institute of Medicine.  The first, released in 2010, examined about 20 existing front-of-package schemes cluttering up the labels of processed foods and evaluated their strengths and weaknesses.  It recommended that FOP labels deal only with calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.  My question at the time: why not sugars?  The committee’s answer: calories took care of it.

But the IOM’s second report in 2011 included sugars and recommended a point system for evaluating the amounts of it and those nutrients in processed foods.  Packages would get zero stars if their saturated and trans fat, sodium, or sugars exceeded certain cut points.

The Times editorial explained what happened next:

the Grocery Manufacturers Association [GMA] called the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation “untested” and “interpretive.” Along with the Food Marketing Institute, it developed its own front-of-package labeling system, which includes some useful information, but is more complex and less helpful than the institute’s version.

As I stated at the time, the FDA let the GMA get away with this and has said not one more word about front-of-package labels.

According to the Times, the FDA is still studying the matter.

it’s not clear when or if the agency will require front-of-package labels. The food industry, of course, wants to make its products appear as healthy as possible. The F.D.A. would serve consumers best by taking the Institute of Medicine’s good advice and putting clear and concise nutrition labels right where most shoppers will see them.

It certainly would.  It’s time to take those IOM reports out of the drawer and get busy writing rules for them.

Oct 6 2014

Mexico’s front-of-package food label: Eat more sugar!

Mexico has a new scheme for front-of-package labeling.

Take, for example, this label for Coca-Cola’s “green” Life drink, sweetened with sugar and Stevia.

New Picture (5)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The label says:

Sugars

9 g

10%**

The asterisks take you to this explanation:

**Of the daily nutrients recommended based on a diet of 2000 calories

Huh?  Since when is sugar intake recommended?  Since when does 9 grams equal 10% of a recommended amount?

How is it possible that Mexico set a daily standard intake (equivalent to our Daily Value) of 90 grams (!)—nearly twice as much as the amount recommended as an upper limit by the World Health Organization  and many other international health authorities?

The answer: food politics, of course.

Most international health agencies recommend an upper limit for added sugars of 10% of calories (50 grams for a 2000-calorie diet).  They consider 5% (25 grams) even better for health and especially for dental health.

The Mexican label covers total sugars.  This hides the copious amounts added by food companies.  All of the sugar in Coca-Cola Life is added.

How did this happen?  From what I’ve heard,

  • Mexican public health authorities were not consulted about this standard.
  • Although public health scientists filed well-documented objections, these were ignored.
  • Critics are now under a gag order.  If they work for the government, they are not allowed to criticize the sugar label.

Officials of the Ministry of Health and the Mexican equivalent of the FDA have close ties to food companies.  They produced this label in collaboration with the food industry, with no input from independent public health experts.

For a country that leads the world in obesity prevention policies, this label is a huge embarrassment.  It should be fixed, immediately.

Ecuador, on the other hand, is using this front-of-package label.  Wouldn’t it be helpful if everyone did?

New Picture (6)

Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:

 

Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.