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By WILLIAM NEUMAN Published: January 24, 2011
Starting in the next few months, the front of many food packages will prominently display important nutrition information, including calorie, fat and sugar content. The industrywide program was announced Monday by food makers and grocers.
The executives who made the announcement repeatedly invoked the campaign against obesity initiated by Michelle Obama, the first lady, saying they had developed the voluntary labeling plan after she challenged them to help consumers make more healthful food choices.
But in fact, the industry went its own way after months of talks with the White House and the Food and Drug Administration broke down.
The Obama administration wanted the package-front labels to emphasize nutrients that consumers might want to avoid, like sodium, calories and fat. But manufacturers insisted that they should also be able to use the labels to highlight beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and protein.
The administration concluded that “in the end, the label was going to be confusing, because those things would be included out of context, and it could make unhealthy foods appear like they had some redeeming quality,” said an official who was not authorized to discuss the talks and spoke on condition of anonymity. For example, the official said, “ice cream would be deemed healthy because it would have calcium in it.”
As a result, the industry’s plan received only tepid approval from Mrs. Obama — a stark contrast to her enthusiastic support last week of a healthful eating initiative from Wal-Mart, which pledged to reformulate its store-brand foods and devise an easy-to-understand label showing which foods were more healthful.
The industry move was widely seen as an attempt to influence the F.D.A.’s continuing effort to establish voluntary guidelines for front-of-package labeling. Once those guidelines are issued, perhaps this year, the industry could come under pressure to change its packaging again.
In a statement, the White House said the labeling initiative was “a significant first step” but added that it would “look forward to future improvement” in the system. It said the F.D.A. would closely monitor the effort “to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers.”
Food industry executives said Monday that they had developed the plan in response to a speech by Mrs. Obama last March, in which she called for “clear, consistent” labels to help consumers make better decisions about food.
“Mrs. Obama challenged our industry to move farther and faster providing consumers with healthier product choices and more information,” said Pamela Bailey, the chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers. “We would not be here today if she had not defined the common objective.”
Ms. Bailey, speaking at a news conference in Phoenix, called the new labeling system “the most ambitious revision of food and beverage labels” since the 1990 law that established the now-familiar Nutrition Facts box that appears on the back or side of packaged foods.
The plan unveiled Monday, called Nutrition Keys, calls for the front of food packages to display a series of icons that show four basic nutrients: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars.
In that aspect, it responds to a federal Institute of Medicine report last year that recommended that front labels emphasize nutrients that consumers should limit because of their contribution to obesity and heart disease, major public health problems.
But the institute’s report discouraged including positive nutrients on the label because they might confuse consumers and encourage manufacturers to fortify foods unnecessarily with vitamins or other ingredients.
The industry plan allows manufacturers to display as many as two “nutrients to encourage” on each package, from a list of eight — potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein.
The labeling system was developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group that represents retailers, who often contract with food makers to create store brands. The groups said their members, which include a vast majority of food manufacturers and retailers, would begin using the new labels in the coming months. In the fall, they plan to begin a $50 million advertising campaign to promote the initiative.
The industry announcement was the latest episode in a tug of war over how to convey important nutrition facts in a simple, easy-to-understand way on the front of packaged foods.
Two years ago, the industry abandoned a labeling initiative, called Smart Choices, after the F.D.A. said it might mislead consumers. The campaign was criticized for promoting sugary cereals like Froot Loops as a healthy choice.
The F.D.A. then said it would recommend the best way to provide nutrition facts to consumers. The industry’s talks with the administration began last year.
The F.D.A. has said it was interested in a British labeling system using a traffic signal logo to show favorable (green) and unfavorable (red) nutrient content. Industry, however, has resisted such a display, which it fears might drive away consumers.
David A. Kessler, a former F.D.A. commissioner, said the industry should wait for the government to set labeling rules. “What the industry is proposing can make something look healthier than it really is,” he said.
Asked why the industry was proceeding with the labeling plan now, without waiting for the F.D.A. to complete its guidelines, Leslie G. Sarasin, the chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, said the matter was too urgent to wait.
She added, “Another reason for our quick action on this is that the first lady asked us to do it.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 25, 2011, on page
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