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Monday, September 12, 2022

In Your Face Food Labels

Is food label placement really an issue?  A lengthy Wall Street Journal article gave it the space to give us pause. (The complete article, without photos, by Kristina Peterson is copied below.)  My letter to the editor as printed by the WSJ, 9/12/2022 follows, albeit in a shortened format. The original letter is at the bottom of this post.

Nutrition Advocates Urge Front-of-Package Labels Highlighting Fat, Sugar Levels

Aim is to better flag health risks, but industry groups say existing labels suffice

Some companies have launched voluntary front-of-package labels, which display calories, saturated fat and other information.PHOTO: ARIEL ZAMBELICH/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By Kristina Peterson

Updated Sept. 6, 2022 2:58 pm ET

WASHINGTON—Nutrition advocates and food-industry groups are revving up for a fight over whether an additional label should go on the front of many packaged-food items to more clearly indicate whether they pose a health risk.

A long-running debate over what those new labels should look like—and whether they should be required—is intensifying ahead of a White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health later this month.

The Food and Drug Administration already requires most packaged foods to display a detailed nutritional label, but they are typically placed on the back or side of the item. Advocates want another, more condensed label on the front of the package that would visually flag certain health risks, such as high sugar or saturated-fat content, at a time of rising national rates of obesity among adults and children, as well as other diseases.

“We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health,” said Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog organization. “This is a chance to make that information more prominent, more readable and more useful.”

Industry groups say there is insufficient real-world evidence to show such labels would influence consumer behavior. They also contend the FDA doesn’t have the authority to mandate front-of-package labels, which they said could pose a First Amendment threat, because companies could view them as a form of forced speech.

Front-of-package labeling for certain foods is mandatory in several countries, including Mexico and Ecuador. Canada is joining them in 2026.PHOTO: CENTER FOR SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

“There really is a lack of robust evidence” to support advocates’ claims around front labels, said Roberta Wagner, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association, and some of the proposed labels would “demonize” certain foods, she said.

A spokeswoman for the FDA said last week that it “plans to help empower consumers by providing more informative labeling to help consumers identify foods that can contribute to healthier diets.” The agency said it is monitoring the implementation of front labels in other countries and starting to conduct its own consumer focus groups around front labels.

The agency also said it is working on updating the definition of a healthy food and developing a symbol to represent it.

An outside task force of 26 food and health experts said in their recommendations ahead of the White House food summit that the FDA should develop an effective front-labeling plan.

‘We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health.’

— Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

A footnote, however, disclosed that the task force itself was divided over whether such labels should be voluntary, mandatory or implemented in stages, and whether the labels should include warnings.

Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would require the FDA to create standardized, front-of-package labeling for all food that has a nutrition label, which excludes some food such as raw fruits and vegetables.

“People just don’t have the patience or the time to be detectives at store shelves, hunting for data that may be somewhere on the package,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), one of the bill’s sponsors.

Republicans have been skeptical that additional labels would work to sway consumer behavior and said they aren’t necessary, because packaged foods already have required nutritional labels.

“I’m not too eager to push for big changes unless they can prove there’s some huge benefit to it,” said Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition panel.

Nutrition advocates want the FDA to require front labels that use colors or eye-catching designs to flag health information on packaged foods.PHOTO: THE CENTER FOR SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

A trio of groups including the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition with the FDA last month, calling on the agency to establish mandatory front-of-package nutritional labels for all packaged foods that would require a calorie count, and interpretive designs to help people understand the label.

For example, some versions use an octagon shaped like a stop sign to warn whether a food is high in added sugars, sodium or saturated fat, while others use the red, yellow and green colors of a traffic signal to distill nutritional information into a graphic.

Some industry groups have launched voluntary programs, including Facts Up Front, started in 2011 by the Consumer Brands Association and FMI, The Food Industry Association. About 150 companies use those voluntary labels, which display nutritional information, including calories, saturated fat and sodium, as well as many as two “nutrients to encourage,” such as fiber or potassium.


Would front labels have an impact on your food or beverage purchases? Why, or why not? Join the conversation below.

The program regularly updates its style guidelines and is currently swapping in a box for added sugars, instead of total sugars, which includes naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit, Ms. Wagner said.

Critics said the industry program doesn’t do enough to deter people from buying highly processed foods, which are often high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.

“That was a food-industry initiative to head off anything that might actually work,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor emerita at New York University.

Research into real-world consumers’ behavior is expanding as more countries adopt either voluntary or mandatory front-package labels. Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Iran and Israel are among the countries that have mandatory front labels for certain foods, with Canada joining them in 2026.

An August 2021 study of 2,381 Chilean households published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that overall sugar in food purchases fell 10%, saturated fat declined 3.9% and sodium dropped by 4.7%, compared with a scenario where the front labels weren’t required.

Nutrition advocates say the voluntary labels aren’t effective in nudging consumers’ behavior or motivating companies to make healthier food.PHOTO: ARIEL ZAMBELICH/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Industry trade groups contend that only Congress can mandate front-of-package labels. Nutrition groups disagree, saying that the FDA has previously revised labeling requirements.

While the FDA has the authority to issue regulations to educate consumers about nutrition, whether or not they can compel companies to share information “is always a battle that exists between the agency and First Amendment advocates,” said Raqiyyah Pippins, a partner at Arnold & Porter.

To avert a potential court challenge, the FDA might seek to broker a compromise that would make the front labels voluntary but establish specific standards for their use, said Ricardo Carvajal, a former associate chief counsel at the FDA and now a director at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara P.C., a law firm that specializes in food and drug issues.

Write to Kristina Peterson at

Appeared in the September 7, 2022, print edition as 'Fight Brews Over New Food Labels'.

My original letter:

In Your Face Food Labels

It's great our government wants to prevent obesity, but does it really think that turning a food package over to read nutrition information on the back is the barrier to success?

It is well known that all food packages contain nutritional information on the back of the package. Are there some people who really don't know this, or who don't accidently see the backside of products they have purchased? If so, wouldn't an educational campaign about turning food packages over to read about nutrition be more effective and less costly than asking all food companies to redesign all food packages? Or maybe the people who stock our grocery shelves should place packages with their backs facing forward? 

When packaging is getting smaller to keep prices down will companies now make them bigger to include the required information on the front?  Otherwise, condensed information on the front of a package will not be "more prominent and readable." I suggest a skull and cross bones on non-conforming foods. 

This is just one more nonsensical nanny state effort to reduce obesity.  As always the solution belongs with the individual to be informed and exercise self control.

Or should we just outlaw all junk food?

What do you think?

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