Your chance to tell the FDA what you think of food-package labels
The FDA is seeking public comment on "ways to enhance the usefulness to consumers of point-of-purchase nutrition information" -- meaning information on the front of food packages or info that might be displayed on shelf-tags in grocery stores. (They're not talking about the Nutrition Facts box on that back of packages to which many of us already refer.)
The agency wants data on whether we notice the things or not -- and if we do, whether we understand what we're looking at; what display designs work best; whether a requirement to display such info might invite food companies to change the composition of their wares and more. Though a lot of the data the FDA wants will come from academics and the food industry, the agency also wants to hear from consumers at large.
Here's an FDA Web page where you can read more about what the agency is seeking and submit a comment.
The stated aim is to devise rules for such labeling that would make it easy for people to notice, understand and use labeling to make more healthful selections.
Why do we need nutrition statistics on the front if we've already got detailed info on the back? FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg notes that an awful lot of us are still fat and eat god-awful diets (though she didn't phrase it in those terms), so we may need more help.
Plus, there are a lot of labels and claims already on the front of food packages put there by food companies. Are they clear? Do they confuse? Do they guide us toward better choices?
Instead of the cacophony of seals and stamps and checks and hearts, the FDA wants a standardized system that the food industry would adopt voluntarily.
(There have been a number of such schemes floated around recently, including the industry's Smart Choices program, which ran into political problems after it was revealed that items such as Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Ritz Bits Peanut Butter Chocolatey Blast crackers and Kid Cuisine Magical Cheese Stuffed Crust Cheese Pizza were all Smart Choices.)
Some people think that front-of-package labels should be dumped altogether. Here's an article from Frebruary, "Front-of-Package Food Labels: Public Health or Propaganda?", written by NYU's Marion Nestle and David Ludwig of Children's Hospital Boston.
Citing several examples of labels on foods they consider especially problematic, article goes on to say that it may not be feasible to regulate the labels strictly enough to prevent misleading consumers.
Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, argues that we need a simple front-of-package system of the kind encouraged in the U.K. -- traffic-light symbols for high, medium or low levels of fat, sodium and added sugars.
Here's a list, with explanations, of some common food-package terms from AskDrSears.com.
-- Rosie Mestel
Photo: Nutrition information tags on supermarket shelves, such as this one at an Albertsons, as well as claims on the fronts of packages recently have become more prevalent. The FDA wants to make them more helpful to consumers. Credit: Irfan Khan // Los Angeles Times