Will consumers pay more attention to front-of-pack labels?

Will consumers pay more attention to front-of-pack labels?

Government-commissioned research into front-of-pack labelling in the US has concluded that labels should display four key nutritional components but a survey just published in Europe suggests many consumers are still ignoring front-of-pack nutritional advice. Ben Cooper looks at how the labelling debate in the US is shaping up.

The publication of the first phase of research into front-of-pack labelling by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has thrown the debate over nutritional labelling in the US back into the spotlight.

Last year, food and drinks producers were embarrassed by the collapse of the industry-led Smart Choices labelling initiative after some fairly hefty criticism from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The research is a direct result of the FDA’s decision last year to take the initiative on front-of-pack (FOP) labelling, signalling its intention to provide “standardised, science-based criteria” on which such labelling must be based.

Commissioned by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the researchers were briefed to assess different FOP nutritional rating systems and symbols being used in the US and abroad. It concluded that FOP labels should focus on four components: calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

However, the researchers’ conclusion that it would not be crucial to include added sugars drew criticism from campaigners. For soft drinks companies, this is a significant detail. While it may mean a less punitive label for some sugared soft drinks it will ensure the category remains at the centre of the debate.

Consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has said that added sugars should be included on FOP labels for some products including soft drinks. "Unfortunately, without disclosing the amount of added sugars, a soft drink with that labelling would look pretty good because it has no fat and virtually no sodium," says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.

The researchers said that both added and naturally occurring sugars contribute to the caloric content of foods and to overconsumption of high-calorie products, and highlighting total calories per serving would address this.

Since the rather acrimonious Smart Choices episode, the FDA has stressed that it wants to involve industry in the development of a standardised front-of-pack labelling system, a sentiment reiterated earlier this year by FDA Commissioner Dr Margaret Hamburg in an open letter to industry. The industry appears to have accepted the FDA’s olive branch readily.

At the recent National Food Policy Conference, organised by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and supported by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs at the GMA, said: "We must do our part to help consumers make healthy choices through nutrition education. That is why we are working with the FDA to develop a science-based front-of-package nutrition labelling system that makes it easier for busy consumers to make informed food decisions at the point of purchase and that can be broadly adopted by food companies."

For the industry, it has arguably never been more important to engage constructively, not only on labelling but on other issues of public concern such as advertising. The Obama administration is committed to government intervention to tackle problems like childhood obesity, which was underlined by the presence of some high-calibre government representatives at the conference including David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Samuel Kass, senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives at the White House.

Equally, the high-level representation spoke to President Obama's commitment to a 'big tent' consensus-based approach, reflected in the FDA's approach to labelling.

Representatives from all sides reported that the conference had seen constructive dialogue between industry, consumer groups and government. Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the CFA, suggested relations between consumer campaigners and the industry are currently less "adversarial" than at times in the past. "In recent years there have been more areas where we've found common ground than in the past," he says.

Some activists suggest the industry's positive engagement is strategic, prompted by the more hands-on approach of the Obama administration. Nevertheless, Waldrop believes the conference represents precisely the kind of constructive dialogue between government, industry and NGOs that the administration is seeking.

Another government representative attending the conference was Jessica Leighton, chief science advisor at the FDA, who spoke about food labelling.

In addition to looking at FOP labelling, the FDA is updating regulations governing the nutrition facts panel which date back to 1990. Leighton said the changes, which relate to how calories are declared and how daily nutrient requirements and typical serving sizes are calculated, could be passed into law by the spring next year.

Leighton told the conference that only just over half of US consumers look at nutritional content on labels and a front-of-pack scheme would target consumers who are not using the nutrition facts panel.

Interestingly, research published earlier this month in Europe suggests many consumers are still not using front-of-pack labelling.

A survey, conducted by Aarhus University in Denmark and the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), shows that more than eight out of ten UK consumers understand guideline daily amounts (GDA) and traffic-light labels, as well as a hybrid of both systems, but just 27% of shoppers used the information on the labels.

The researchers suggested there had been too much emphasis on labelling and that, to be effective, nutrition labelling had to be integrated with a broader policy aimed at encouraging people to eat more healthily. "Only when labelling policy is embedded in a broader nutrition policy that uses multiple instruments to increase interest in healthy eating can both understandability and use of nutrition information on food labels be expected to increase," the report states.

The soft drinks industry may well take this research to be supportive of its contention that policy on health and nutrition has to be viewed holistically and demonising individual products is not particularly constructive.

The publication of the Aarhus/EUFIC study is particularly timely as the IOM moves into the second phase of its research looking at how consumers understand and use different types of nutritional information. The second report will recommend ways to optimise the usefulness of FOP labelling and will also include the researchers’ assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of having a single, standardised front-label system that is regulated by the FDA.

The next phase of the research will be discussed at a public workshop to be hosted by the IOM on 26 October which will be another opportunity for industry and other stakeholders to show they can engage in constructive discussion even on thorny issues where they hold substantially differing opinions.