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FDA clamps down on nutrition labels on food packaging

The agency is targeting foods bearing logos or language suggesting the product is more healthful than the ingredients justify.

October 21, 2009|Andrew Zajac

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration announced plans Tuesday to clamp down on food labeling that it says may mislead consumers into thinking products are more nutritious than they are.

In particular, the FDA will target the front panels of packages bearing logos or language suggesting that the product is more healthful than the actual ingredients justify, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said.

"There's a growing proliferation" of symbols purporting to indicate healthfulness, and "some nutritionists have questioned whether this information is more marketing-oriented than health-oriented. Judging from some of the labels we've seen, this is a valid concern," she said in a conference call with reporters.

Front-of-packaging messages are particularly important because people who look at them are less likely to look at the nutritional content listed on the side or back of a package, Hamburg said.

Though she declined to name specific products, she said some products labeled with the "check mark" logo under the industry-supported Smart Choices food rating program "are almost 50% sugar."

Smart Choices has emerged as a lightning rod among some nutritionists, who say its ratings are too lax and intended to give processed foods undeserved nutritional standing.

"I think Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that its check could go onto Froot Loops made it clear that the bar had to be set higher," said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. "Good for the FDA."

Smart Choices already is under investigation by the Connecticut attorney general for its labeling practices.

Mike Hughes, chairman of the Smart Choices Program, said it was unfair to focus on one ingredient in a single product. "I think you should look at the whole product and what it delivers," he said.

The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing food producers, said in a statement that its members "have already introduced or reformulated over 10,000 products to reduce calories, sugar, sodium, fat and trans fat, or to enhance their nutritional profile, such as with the addition of whole grains or minerals."

Tuesday's announcement continues a trend toward more aggressive FDA enforcement across a range of issues since the Obama administration took office. "It's part of a much broader effort to assert themselves," said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. "The FDA has been absent for a long time."

Hamburg said she preferred to work voluntarily with companies to tweak labeling so that it does not run afoul of FDA guidelines. But in a letter to the food companies, the agency warned that it would "proceed with enforcement action where . . . labeling or labeling systems are used in a manner that is false or misleading."

The FDA plans to issue new rules for nutrition-based standards that food-rating programs would be required to meet. As a possible model for a labeling protocol, Hamburg pointed to England's "traffic light" system in which products bear a green, amber or red light depending on its content of fat, sugar and salt.

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azajac@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mary MacVean contributed to this report.

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