FDA Proposes Sweeping Overhaul of Nutrition Facts Label

<p>The proposed label would more accurately reflect what Americans are actually eating and highlight such parts of the label as calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value, crucial factors in addressing public health ailments like obesity and heart disease, FDA announced.</p>

WASHINGTONThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today proposed to update the two-decade-old Nutrition Facts label for packaged food, requiring disclosure of "added sugars" and mandating a larger font size for calories as part of a number of comprehensive changes intended to reflect modern science and promote healthier diets.

The proposed label would more accurately represent what Americans are actually eating (i.e. bigger portion sizes) and highlight such parts of the label as calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value, crucial factors in addressing public health ailments like obesity and heart disease, FDA announced.

Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, told journalists the proposal is estimated to cost industry $2 billion, although he said the regulations are projected to yield $20 billion to $30 billion in economic benefits.

During an event this morning at the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama joined Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to unveil the proposal.

Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether its good for your family," said the First Lady, who has been spearheading a "Let's Move!" initiative to fight obesity and promote healthier choices for children. So this is a big deal, and its going to make a big difference for families all across this country."

FDA estimated the sweeping proposal would impact roughly 60,000 manufacturers and more than 700,000 Universal Product Codes, representing approximately $236.78 billion in sales in grocery stores, drug stores and mass merchandise stores.

"I think there is broad support for this process and the approach we are taking," Taylor said in a conference call today with the media.

We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders as these proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label make their way through the rule making process," said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), in a statement. It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science. Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

A side-by-side comparison of the current label and the proposed one emphasizes that calories and servings per container would be displayed more prominently through larger fonts.

FDA expressed hope that the revamped label would encourage food manufacturers to introduce healthier foods in a country suffering from a voracious appetite that has led to an obesity epidemic. Taylor cited a significant reduction in trans fat in foods after the substance was added to the Nutrition Facts label in 2006.

But the changes, even if finalized, will not take effect for at least two years, pointed out Justin Prochnow, a Denver-based food lawyer with Greenberg Traurig LLP.

Critics of the current facts label, which was created in 1993, have pointed out that some information is unnecessary, hard to read and difficult to understand.

Hamburg, M.D., declared the changes would catapult the Nutrition Facts label "fully into the 21st century."

"A lot has changed in the past 20 years. Much more is known about food consumption and nutrition, the health of our population and the dietary choices that can help keep us healthy or make us vulnerable to an array of chronic diseases," Hamburg wrote in a blog. "The changes that were proposing reflect that knowledge, based on an extensive examination of the latest public health trends and research on nutrition and disease, including obesity."

For certain foods that contain more than one serving size but can be gobbled in one or multiple sessions, the labels would need to disclose calorie and nutrition information for the entire package as well as per serving. The sweeping proposal would update reference amounts, which manufacturers use to determine serving sizes, in order to reflect the quantities of food that are currently consumed.

"The new changes are based on science, and they take people's actual eating behavior into account," Glenna McCollum, registered dietitian nutritionist and president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said in a statement. "Serving sizes for many products have been updated to realistically reflect the amounts people actually eat at one sitting, nutrient comparisons between 'per serving' and 'per container' are available, and a new requirement will tell consumers how much sugar is being added to a product."

FDA said its proposal requiring information about added sugars is based on recommendations from experts that Americans should lower their calorie intake from such food. Food companies would still have to list "Total Fat", "Saturated Fat" and "Trans Fat" on the label. But FDA said "Calories from Fat" would be taken off the Nutrition Facts label "because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount."

FDA also has proposed requiring the declaration of potassium and vitamin D on the label, if applicable, in an effort to aid Americans who may be at risk for chronic disease due to low consumption of these vitamins. Calcium and iron would still be required on the label, if applicable, but FDA has proposed listing vitamins A and C as a voluntary labeling measure. Another proposal would revise daily values for such nutrients as calcium, dietary fiber and vitamin D.

FDA also said it is proposing corresponding updates to the Supplement Facts label on dietary supplements, including suggested changes to Daily Values and the units of measure.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy organization focused on nutrition, largely hailed FDA's proposed changes, although it recommended adding a Daily Value for added sugars and lowering the Daily Value for sodium to 1,500 milligrams. 

"While the FDA is off to a strong start, the agency must do more to ensure that these labels communicate better advice on sugar and salt," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement.

The proposed changes, reflecting new dietary recommendations, consensus reports and national survey data, would affect all packaged foods other than certain meat, poultry and processed egg products that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

FDA's proposal is not the government's only initiative to revise food labels. In 2011, the agency issued proposed regulations to establish labeling requirements for restaurants, similar retail food establishments and vending machines. Some critics have bashed the proposed regulations, including the Food Marketing Institute, which has said grocery stores would be burdened with more than $1 billion in costs during the first year of implementation.

FDA said an increasing number of consumers are actually reading the Nutrition Facts label. According to surveys the agency conducted, the percentage of respondents reporting that they "often" read a food label when they purchase a food climbed from 44% in 2002 to 54% in 2008.

Taylor told reporters that more than half of adults use the Nutrition Facts label.

But it may have become somewhat antiquated over the years. According to food and beverage market research from the NPD Group, consumers read food labels when they first appeared but stopped doing so as time wore on. The market research firm attributed the decline to the fact that consumers became educated on the ingredients in their food, such as their favorite cereal.

If the Nutrition Facts label is to continue to educate, it should allow for changes more often than once every 20 years," said Harry Balzer, NPD chief industry analyst and author of "Eating Patterns in America", in a statement. "For example, gluten, probiotics and omega-3s were not on the radar screen 20 years ago." 

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