FLOTUS goes big on food label changes
By: Helena Bottemiller Evich
February 27, 2014 12:04 AM EST
The Obama administration will unveil the most sweeping update to nutrition labeling on food packages in more than two decades on Thursday — and Americans are in for a reality check about how many calories and how much sugar they are consuming.
What’s considered a serving size would get larger, the type used to display calories would get bolder and added sugars would have to be listed on roughly 700,000 consumer products — from cereal to energy drinks — in a proposal set to be released by the Food and Drug Administration, senior administration officials revealed in a call with reporters Wednesday.
First lady Michelle Obama — whose staff was key in getting the proposal out of FDA, where the labeling revamp has been in the works for 10 years — is slated to announce the changes at a Let’s Move! anniversary event at the White House with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
“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 it’s good for your family,” Obama says in a statement. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”
Food policy experts say the bold announcement, which is expected to anger the food industry, proves Obama is willing to tackle a serious and controversial policy fight after some advocates had been critical of her willingness to partner with food companies, like Subway and Walmart, in her campaign to fight childhood obesity.
Mandating that food companies list exactly how much sugar they add to products on the nutrition label, for example, is a thorny issue that is likely to rile up fierce food and beverage industry opposition in the coming weeks.
Industry groups are already looking at a long list of food policy changes from the Obama administration, including a proposed trans fat ban, major new food safety regulations and forthcoming restaurant menu-labeling requirements. The FDA estimates the Nutrition Facts overhaul alone will cost the industry about $2 billion.
One of the most significant changes in the new labeling proposal would require big updates to the serving sizes listed on Nutrition Facts panels to bring them more in line with what people are actually eating, which would upend some current nutrition labels.
Take a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. It is currently listed as having four servings, with each serving accounting for 280 calories and 9 grams of saturated fat, or 45 percent of the daily value.
Under the new proposal, that pint would be listed as just two servings, so the new label might instead read 560 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat, or 90 percent of the daily value, per serving.
Not only will the numbers for calories, fat and sodium that consumers currently see on products be bigger in some cases, but the calories listed on the label will be getting physically bigger — the new font size for listing calorie numbers is much, much larger.
Companies would have to provide two columns in the Nutrition Facts panel for both “per serving” and “per package” for larger packages of foods that could possibly be consumed in one or multiple sittings.
There are also changes when it comes to vitamins and minerals — potassium and vitamin D are being added while listing vitamins A and C will become voluntary — and the daily value listed fiber is being tweaked. The value listed for sodium would only be reduced slightly, from 2,400 to 2,300 milligrams, which some food companies are breathing a sigh of relief about as consumer groups had called for a much sharper reduction.
Food industry groups are responding politely to the announcement, which they were briefed about Wednesday afternoon.
“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,” says Pamela Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 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.”
Behind the scenes, however, industry operatives are not pleased with the plan and expect there to be major pushback once groups have a chance to digest the details of the new policy.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be foolish enough to attack the first lady — that’s just stupid,” said one longtime food company consultant, who noted that the industry would likely be measured in its public response, even if there are lots of things companies don’t like about it. “It’s sort of a laundry list of everything the industry didn’t want.”
Health advocates, for their part, are thrilled with the proposal — and that the first lady is poised to publicly promote the plan.
“I’m kind of amazed,” said Marion Nestle, a leading nutrition expert and professor at New York University, who writes the popular Food Politics blog. “The proposal is really good.
“I had no idea they were going to come up with something this good,” said Nestle, who lauded the bigger, bolder font for calories and that the rules would require listing added sugars. “I think it’s terrific.”
The proposal is just the first step in what will be a long rulemaking process, which will likely involve thousands of comments from consumers, food companies and health groups.
Senior administration officials said they hope to issue a final rule within the next year, after which point food companies would probably have at least two years to adopt the new labels, so that the changes can take affect before the end of the Obama administration.