Nutrition labels to be put on the front of food packaging

man looks at the label of a frozen food packageIt will soon become a bit easier to compare calorie, fat and probably sugar and salt information when grocery shopping. The food products and the grocery industry on Wednesday announced that some nutritional information displayed on the sides of packaging will soon be more prominently featured on the front as well.

Virtually all major food makers will begin offering the information up front beginning early next year, acting voluntarily, though under a lot of pressure.

Like the Nutrition Facts labels now on a product's side, which are mandated by law, the new labels will be offered in a common format. The front labels will highlight frequently-sought information like calories and nutritional information consumers may want to control, rather than repeat everything. It's still being worked out exactly which information, but sugar, salt or fat per serving may be part of the new label.

The new front labels will focus on contents per serving. That's perceived as being more consumer friendly than some of the Nutrition Facts labels.

The new labels come after several years in which consumer groups have questioned standards for some of the "healthy" icons made on food labels, and suggested differing and sometimes conflicting standards by each manufacturer hurt rather than help comparison shopping. Some of the consumer groups have urged the government to require the labels.

The new labels were announced on Wednesday by the the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute whose members suggested they would immediately help consumers.

"This is a landmark step forward in the industry's commitment to help address the obesity challenge," said David Mackay, president and CEO of Kellogg Co. in a statement. "It represents the most significant change to food labels in the United States in nearly 20 years."

Ric Jurgens, chairman, CEO and president of grocer Hy-Vee, Inc., and chairman of FMI's board, said the move will offer benefits to consumers.

"America's food retailers are proud to partner with manufacturers to combat obesity," he said. "We live in a fast-paced world that gets busier by the day. By placing clear and straightforward nutrition information on the front of our packages, we are furthering our industry's commitment to helping our customers make healthy choices."

Two weeks ago the National Academies of Sciences' Institute of Medicine in a report requested by Congress recommended up front package labeling.

The report concluded that up front labeling "would be useful" and a tool for nutrition education "given that a majority of the U.S. population is overweight or obese and that diet-related chronic diseases are widely prevalent."

The report also suggested the variation in symbols and ratings systems used currently "may confuse consumers."

The Food and Drug Administration and a number of legislators have also pushed for the information to move upfront. Some legislators on Wednesday offered statements of support.

In a statement Wednesday, the FDA said it was hopeful about the announcement.

"The Administration shares the goal of having a uniform front-of-pack nutrition label on all food and beverage products. As the details get worked through, our hope is that the industry will develop a label that aids in consumer understanding and helps parents and other shoppers easily identify and select products that contribute to a healthy diet," said the statement.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been one of the biggest critics of the current system was less sure.

Michael Jacobson, the group's executive director, told WalletPop the industry announcement represented "a tiny step forward for consumers."

He said while the British government requires food makers to not only list the amount of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars in a food but whether it is high, medium or low, the U.S. proposal would only require displaying the amount per serving.

"To really reach those consumers who do not use Nutrition Facts labels, additional nutrition information should be readily seen and easily understandable by someone who has no idea what a "%DV" (percentage of Daily Value) is," he said.

"Front-of-package labeling should make the healthiest foods easy to spot, and the less healthy foods easy to avoid."

Wednesday's announcement followed the February announcement by the American Beverage Industry that it would more prominently display beverage calorie information on the front of bottles.

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