YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Food Briefs

Praise, Scorn Greet U.S. Proposal to Expand Health Claims on Labels

August 13, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Food manufacturers are embracing the federal government's recent proposal that would significantly expand the use of health claims on product labels. But a consumer group faults last week's regulatory action as one that creates a climate for deceptive nutritional statements on food containers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's plan calls for allowing "greater freedom in the kinds of health-related messages that can be added to . . . labels."

In its announcement, the agency emphasized that any such statements must be of a general nature and be based on widely accepted scientific data. Claims should also discuss the importance of overall dietary habits and be accompanied by complete nutritional disclosure.

Restrictions prevent companies from linking any particular product with a medical cure, folk theory or illness prevention. Label messages must also avoid misleading information. Penalties for any abuses include fines, recalls or product seizures.

An industry trade group praised the proposal as one that will permit manufacturers to emphasize a product's important nutritive values.

"The present policy prohibits (companies) from providing any real health information about a product and that's contrary to the public's interest and contrary to the government's announced (health) objectives," said Charles J. Carey, president of the Washington-based National Food Processors Assn.

Under the FDA's proposal, manufacturers will be able to state the importance to consumers of, say, the significant amounts of calcium present in dairy products. Firms are now limited to the "rigid" nutritional labeling charts commonly seen on packaging, said Carey, whose group petitioned the federal agency for the changes three years ago.

The proposal's critics state that food companies will not be required to obtain FDA approval for the health statements used on food products and can avoid mentioning in the claims any potentially harmful elements present such as high levels of salt or excessive amounts of fat.

"If a negative component exists in a food then it should be included in any health statement. But that is not required under this plan," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy. "We are likely to see claims that whole milk is high in calcium, without mention that it is also high in fat."

Although her Washington-based group favors loosening the current strict guidelines, Haas said that the FDA-sponsored changes benefit the food industry's marketing capabilities much more than consumers' decision-making process.

"The new regulation provides more flexibility . . . which is not a bad thing in that one result should be more nutrition (information) in the marketplace," Haas said. "But this should not be a deception for consumers. There should be a balance of information so that the industry does not take liberties with the claims that they make."

Emil Corwin, an FDA spokesman, said that concerns about the policy will be reviewed after the current public comment period ends Nov. 2. At that time, the agency will review all relevant information and issue the final regulation.

Corwin emphasized, however, that under the current proposal a committee of federal officials will draw additional guidelines on what is considered appropriate health-related language on food labels. The group will also publish model messages for manufacturers to work with.

One such example, provided in the original FDA announcement, is, "Milk products are good sources of calcium, which is important in a balanced diet for strong bones."

Cereal Box Messages--The Kellogg Co. was one of the first firms to offer a health claim on packaging when information regarding the role of dietary fiber was placed on breakfast cereal cartons in 1984.

"We're pleased that the FDA expressed its belief that food labels are important vehicles to inform and educate the public about diet and health," said Neil Nyberg, communications director at the Battle Creek, Mich.-based firm. "We've always believed that our products can play a valuable role in the nutrition of consumers and it is important for us to convey that information."

The company's initial messages paraphrased the National Cancer Institute's finding that high fiber/low fat diets may reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer. The statement also stated that several foods are good fiber sources including Kellogg's All Bran cereal. The claim appeared on cereal boxes and in advertisements. It has subsequently been used to promote other Kellogg's items.

"We were able to get that message out to a great number of consumers and have played a leading role in . . . disseminating the National Cancer Institute's recommendations on high fiber/low fat diets," said Nyberg. He indicated that the company will continue to use product health statements to convey nutritional information to the public.

Los Angeles Times Articles