FDA to Crack Down on Front-of-Package Labeling, Smart Choices Suspends Program

September 20, 2010

Following last week...s FDA announcement that the agency will begin to enforce against misleading front-of-package (FOP) nutrition labels, officials of the recently launched Smart Choices FOP labeling program announced that it would put its program on hold. Last Tuesday, FDA released a letter to industry stating that the agency will begin policing claims made in FOP labels. This is the first time that the agency has taken an active role in overseeing FOP label claims.

Following last week...s FDA announcement that the agency will begin to enforce against misleading front-of-package (FOP) nutrition labels, officials of the recently launched Smart Choices FOP labeling program announced that it would put its program on hold.

Last Tuesday, FDA released a letter to industry stating that the agency will begin policing claims made in FOP labels. This is the first time that the agency has taken an active role in overseeing FOP label claims.

FOP labeling programs have come under new criticism recently, as this summer the Smart Choices logo began appearing on the fronts of food packages of some of the largest food corporations, including Generals Mills, Kraft Foods, and Kellogg Co. Many critics have decried the Smart Choices nutrition criteria as being too lenient, allowing foods high in sugar and fat to use the program...s logo.

Another criticism of FOP labeling programs in general is that there are too many independent FOP logos on the market, ultimately confusing consumers.

On the Tuesday that the FDA letter was released, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg held a press conference to discuss the new role FDA is undertaking to oversee FOP labeling. She said that the agency plans to bring standardization to FOP labeling by developing a 'single set of science- and nutrition-based criteria' that all FOP labels should abide by. The agency is also launching a consumer research program to determine how consumers are influenced by FOP labels, and how to best convey nutrition information to consumers through FOP labels.

Hamburg said that the agency could make 'significant progress' toward its goal by the end of 2010. As a model, FDA will be looking to the United Kingdom...s 'traffic light' nutrition labeling approach, for which government defines the nutritional criteria that foods using FOP labels should meet.

The U.K....s labeling system is voluntary, meaning that many retailers have voluntarily adopted the government...s criteria. FDA hopes that a voluntary program will work in the United States. If it doesn...t, however, the agency is prepared to use its authority 'to move toward a mandated approach, should that prove necessary,' said Hamburg.

And the agency is ready to start enforcing against current FOP labels on the market that could be misleading consumers. Hamburg and her staff will begin examining existing FOP labels for violations of current FDA labeling rules, including those rules under FDA...s Nutrition and Education Labeling Act.

Hamburg also called on industry to report any cases of misleading labeling. 'If you know of any products in the marketplace in your areas that you think should be brought to our attention, please feel free to do so,' she said.

Hamburg also stressed that FDA is seeking a collaborative approach with the food industry, including manufacturers and retailers, to help devise appropriate labeling criteria. 'While we may take enforcement action against manufacturers whose labels are either false or misleading, our primary aim is to work with the food industry to help develop appropriate criteria for FOP labeling that will truly serve American consumers.'

Meanwhile, the announcement that Smart Choices would halt any further growth of its program was surprising, if not welcome, to many. The program...s officials said that while FDA is reviewing nutrition claims, the Smart Choices program will 'voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the Smart Choices Program logo.'

Products currently bearing the Smart Choices logo will remain on shelves, however, and food companies already participating in the program can continue to use the logo. Smart Choices officials said that the program...s criteria will be adjusted if necessary to meet any criteria decided on by FDA.