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Agriculture Department Restates Its Opposition to Heart Assn.'s Endorsements


A controversial nutrition labeling program by the American Heart Assn. was dealt another setback by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently restated its strong opposition to the group's plan, called HeartGuide.

The effort to place endorsements on products that the association believes are nutritious has been dogged with criticism since its inception. However, the first HeartGuide labels--a bold red heart with a check mark at its center--are scheduled to appear in early 1990 despite the opposition.

Last October, the USDA informed the American Heart Assn. that the endorsements could not appear on meat or poultry products--whether fresh or processed. The Dallas-based group appealed the decision shortly thereafter and its request was recently denied by USDA.

About 100 other processed foods, which fall under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are still scheduled to begin carrying the HeartGuide seal in February. However, FDA has expressed reservations about HeartGuide, but has not formally announced its position on the program.

In a letter dated Nov. 29, a top agriculture department official restated the agency's initial position.

Assistant Agriculture Secretary Jo Ann R. Smith notified Myron L. Weisfelt, American Heart Assn. president, that the group's appeal was rejected.

"We remain convinced that an AHA seal of approval used on specific food items produced by participating companies cannot convey the importance of a total diet," Smith wrote. "Foods so labeled will be perceived as 'good' by the consumer and those without the seal will be perceived as 'bad.' "

Companies that enroll their products in the Heart Assn. program face a sliding scale of fees depending on the item's national sales volume. First, the firms must pay between $10,000 and $40,000 just to have the association test their product to determine whether its meets the Heart Assn.'s nutritional guidelines. This fee is nonrefundable.

If the product qualifies then an annual fee ranging from $5,000 to $600,000 must be paid to gain the HeartGuide benefits including use of the emblem on packaging.

The USDA once again characterized the Heart Assn.'s criteria for including products in its program as "lacking."

"The public confusions caused by such a labeling program cannot be countered effectively by (the group's companion) education program," Smith wrote, adding that the debate over HeartGuide could "undermine public confidence in the science of nutrition."

Smith's decision comes in spite of about 500 letters critical of the USDA's original decision, according to Jim Greene, public information officer with USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The letter writing campaign was waged by Heart Assn. volunteers and was also aimed at Congress and the FDA, said Jamy Poth, HeartGuide communications manager for the Dallas-based group.

"The purpose was to say that HeartGuide is a good idea and that consumers look forward to seeing it on their store shelves," she said. "People also wrote to the USDA to express their dismay that products that contain meat and poultry are not going to be included in the program."

Poth said that she hopes some accommodation can be reached with the USDA, but did not rule out legal action against the agency.

"The federal government already allows food manufacturers to make health benefit claims that we believe are false and misleading. And the USDA opposition to a positive program, like HeartGuide, is impossible to understand," Poth said. "We are deeply disappointed and totally dismayed by their obstructive position."

The Community Nutrition Institute, a consumer advocacy group, has also been critical of HeartGuide. The Washington-based institute recently reported that the Heart Assn.'s label plan has not generated much interest from the food industry.

"Its program has proven to be the wallflower at the nutrition ball. Major food companies are carefully avoiding any public displays of interest and food trade association executives are less than charitable," reported Nutrition Week, the institute's newsletter.

Poth said that the Heart Assn. will soon release a list of those products approved to carry the HeartGuide seal.

Raw Egg Caution--Consumers are being warned again by federal health officials to avoid holiday recipes that include raw or lightly cooked eggs in the final dish. Of particular concern is home-made eggnog, a popular seasonal drink.

The concern stems from a continuing problem with eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis, a harmful bacteria.

"Eggs must be cooked thoroughly in order to kill any bacteria--such as salmonella--that may be present. If your eggnog recipe calls for raw eggs, it's not safe," a USDA advisory noted.

The problem is believed to be caused when the bacteria is transfered from an infected laying hen directly to the egg's interior before the shell is formed.

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