Big Food defies first lady with own nutrition label

Scared by new (and Michelle Obama–approved) FDA rules on nutrition labeling, the food industry is fighting back

March 5, 2014 8:00AM ET
For the first time in 20 years, the FDA has proposed improvements to the nutrition facts label that appears on most food packages.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Last week, with an assist from first lady Michelle Obama, the Food and Drug Administration announced a set of proposed improvements — the first in 20 years — to the nutrition facts label found on most food packages.

The most striking change would be the huge increase in font size for the calorie count; even for those with poor eyesight, the number would be hard to miss. (You can compare the current and proposed versions here.) This, combined with more realistic serving sizes, which the FDA has also proposed, might help. After all, who eats only 3/4 of a cup of Frosted Flakes? Food companies try to make their hyperprocessed foods look nutritionally palatable by, in the case of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, listing only 11 grams of sugar per serving per 3/4 cup. Under the new rules, serving sizes will be more realistic. As the agency explains, “By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they ‘should’ be eating.”

Another update would require added sugars to be broken out. This is especially important, given the country’s current yogurt obsession. It’s impossible to know, for example, how much sugar in your favorite Chobani is naturally occurring from dairy and fruit and how much the company adds to get you hooked.

I was surprised to see a pretty bold proposal from the FDA, and my nutrition colleagues concur. It’s a sad day when we are celebrating an increase in font size as a major government victory. But with the feds deregulating poultry slaughterhouses, approving potentially hazardous genetically engineered crops and delaying long-awaited food safety regulations, Barack Obama’s administration has thus far been a huge disappointment on food policy.

In response to the FDA’s announcement, Big Food’s lobbyists were polite enough. One industry consultant told Politico, “I don’t think anyone is going to be foolish enough to attack the first lady — that’s just stupid.” But behind the scenes, they are griping. “It’s sort of a laundry list of everything the industry didn’t want.”

Translation: Expect Big Food to fight like hell. The regulations are far from final. After the requisite 90-day comment period, any revisions from the FDA have to be approved by the White House (where they are could get stalled), and then food companies would have two years to comply.

Meanwhile, the food industry isn’t content to just submit comments. Instead, as reported in Politico, Big Food’s lobbying powerhouses — the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute — are teaming up to spend $50 million to promote a different, voluntary labeling scheme, just in time to confuse shoppers even more. Called Facts up Front, it consists of a few nutrition items that the large food makers have chosen to display on the front of packages. This is essentially the same information that is already required on the back but with the advantage that companies get to cherry-pick the nutritional information that they serve up to shoppers. And in true industry fashion, there is nothing new about this program. It was first announced by Big Food lobbyists in 2011, and even then it was a renaming of yet another industry scheme, called Nutrition Keys. As “Food Politics” author Marion Nestle so aptly put it, “Food industry thinks name change will disguise bad labeling scheme.” 

Faced with the prospect of an updated nutrition facts label that conveys more realistic information more clearly, the food industry is attempting to spin the label as outdated and no longer necessary.

Front-of-package (FOP) labeling has become an even bigger controversy than the changes to the nutrition facts panel. FOP labeling confuses shoppers by offering a cluttered mix of vague health claims and marketing messages. (The front of a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes box, for example, boasts the marketing tag line “They’re gr-r-r-eat!” as well as the vague statement that the cereal contains “10 vitamins and minerals.”) Responding to calls from food advocates that the FDA clean up this mess, the Institute of Medicine, an independent advisory board to Congress, recommended requiring simple, clear symbols on the front of packages that shoppers can understand at a glance. Ideas included a star rating system or “traffic lights” of red, yellow or green to show which products have low, medium or high sugar, fat and salt content. Other nations use various forms of simpler (and language-barrier-free) labeling systems for the front of food packages.

But industry likes to be in charge. In 2011 after the first announcement of Facts up Front, Marion Nestle argued that industry lobbyists were “engaging in a blatant, in-your-face attempt to undermine the FDA’s current efforts to rationalize front-of-package labeling.” Nothing ever came of those Institute of Medicine recommendations; instead we have the tamer nutrition facts update — the call for font-size increases and more realistic serving sizes — from the FDA.

Faced with the prospect of an updated nutrition facts label that conveys more realistic information more clearly, the food industry is attempting to spin the label as outdated and no longer necessary. Bruce Silverglade, an attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz, a law firm that advises food companies, defended Facts up Front to Politico, saying, “The general view in the industry is that nutrition information has really moved to the front of the pack. What the FDA is doing is essentially proposing a new model of an old dinosaur.”

That’s rich coming from Silverglade, who spent some 25 years as the regulatory attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, where in 1990 he was instrumental in getting the FDA to require the nutrition facts label in the first place. Then in 2006, Silverglade petitioned the FDA to require an easy-to-understand national nutrition symbol system on the front of food packages because of the confusion the industry was causing with its FOP labeling, calling on the agency to “tear down this Tower of Babel propped up by food companies.” But now that he works for the food industry, Silverglade complains that the nutrition facts label is “unclear” and is instead promoting a supposedly improved version of industry-defined labeling.

To hype its promotion, this week Big Food’s lobbyists released new survey data purporting to show how great consumers think Facts up Front is. Never mind research from unbiased sources that shows a traffic light system is more effective, with one study specifically showing it works better than Facts up Front. That would certainly explain why the food industry spent $1.5 billion successfully lobbying against the European Union's adoption of this approach, using what one member of the European Parliament called “dark and dirty” tactics.

For now, the wrangling over FOP labels may take a backseat. With the first lady firmly behind the new nutrition facts panel, we may see that proposal finalized before the president leaves office. Then again, current FDA regulations requiring restaurants to post calorie counts have been stalled since 2011. A lobbyist for the Food Marketing Institute told AP last year that “fighting the menu labeling rules is one of his group’s top priorities.” His to-do list just got a bit longer.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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