Opinion: FDA delay of new nutrition labels a loss for consumers

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In her time as FLOTUS, Michelle Obama worked awful hard to advance programs and policies to help Americans in general, and children specifically, eat healthier.

Dave Dickey

The crown jewel championed by Obama was, without a doubt, new “Nutrition Fact” labels intended to give consumers greater knowledge about the contents of processed foods, including making calories more noticeable, updating serving sizes, including an added sugars notation, changing nutrients to actual amounts as a percentage and adding a new footnote reading:

“The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet.  2.000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”

In May 2016, the Food and Drug Administration in May of 2016 finalized the rule for the new labels with a July roll-out date (with smaller food production companies getting at least an additional year).

So what’s not to like? What American who cares about the food they eat wouldn’t like a little more intel? What mother who cares about the impact of obesity on kids wouldn’t like to know at glance about the calories she’s bringing home? Is there really anyone out there who thinks these labels are not a good idea? Anyone? I mean, the nutrition labels haven’t changed much since they first appeared 27 years ago.

It turns out that the beverage and packaged food industries – noting new occupancy in the White House – mounted a furious, intense lobbying effort to delay the changes to the nutrition labels.

These trade groups suggested they needed three years beyond 2018 because changing labels is a costly proposition and that the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t been on the same page over labeling issues

The FDA, in mid-June, delayed the July 2018 deadline to some other unannounced date down the road.

The FDA offered this relatively lame line of reasoning for its decision:

“After careful consideration, the FDA determined that additional time would provide manufacturers covered by the rule with necessary guidance from FDA, and would help them be able to complete and print updated nutrition facts panels.”

Unfortunately, that decision will create mass confusion with consumers.  That’s because a number of food companies have become early adopters of the new nutrition labels, among them Nabisco/Mondelez and PepsiCo. Next time you’re in the grocery store, check  out the nutrition facts on a bag of Fritos. The early adopters also show us that it is relatively painless to adhere to the new FDA labeling rule. Think about it – they beat the deadline by a year.

Lobbyists for the food package and beverage industries should be ashamed of themselves. They’re calling the FDA delay a win for common sense regulation.  That’s horse pucky.

Nor has the FDA covered itself with glory.

In a May 24, 2017, letter, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine wrote in a letter to the director of health promotion policy for the Center for Science in Public Interest that he was “pleased to see that some products in the marketplace already bear the new label.”

In other words, the FDA knew about those early adopters and chose to believe a July 2018 roll-out was oh so impossible for all those multi-million-dollar food companies.

Well, if the food package and beverage industries get their way, it will be at least 2021 before consumers might see a new nutrition label.  Enough time to forget about the whole issue.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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