Is a ‘Traffic Light’ Coming to Food Labels?

The FDA might take a lesson from a British program to inform consumers about unhealthful foods.

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Is a traffic light coming to U.S. food labels? It certainly sounds like a possibility. The Food and Drug Administration said today that it's concerned about the proliferation of front-of-package nutrition labeling programs like Smart Choices, which are supposed to offer quick and easy guidance to consumers on purchasing more healthful foods. Trouble is, as the FDA said in a letter to the food industry, the different programs have different criteria, which can be confusing for consumers. They may also be violating the law if they give false or misleading information or convey an overall impression of healthfulness even if the nutritional content shows otherwise. (Hello, Froot Loops, which FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg described but did not specifically name as a Smart Choices-approved cereal, even though it has more than 40 percent sugar. Smart Choices, meantime, said in a statement that it complies with all laws and regulations and looks forward to working with the FDA.)

In addition to examining current labeling programs for potential violations, the FDA said that it would work on a single set of defined nutritional criteria for front-of-package labels. The agency said that it will perform consumer research to see what is effective and what isn't and reach out to industry to see if a "more unified" system might work best. In a conference call with reporters, Hamburg several times cited the voluntary "traffic light" program in Britain as a good example of such a standardized system. The voluntary government program uses color-coded labels to indicate whether levels of total fat, saturated fat, salt, and added sugar are low (green), medium (amber), or high (red). "That's proven to be a system that manufacturers, retailers, and consumers are overall quite comfortable with," said Hamburg.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, told me earlier this year that the U.S. food industry isn't particularly enthusiastic about anything that would feature a red light on the front of some products, discouraging consumption. But Hamburg said complete information—not simply accentuating the positive—is very important for consumers and also "sensitizes manufacturers in a new way to the composition of foods they're putting in the marketplace." While she said the FDA has had informal conversations with industry, the agency hasn't yet begun to define what a standardized system might look like; officials do, though, plan to draw from the traffic light system and similar programs in other countries. The FDA, Hamburg said, expects to have made "significant progress" on new standards by the end of 2010.

And the U.S. government already has sticks as well as carrots. As the FDA's letter said, "If voluntary action by the food industry does not result in a common, credible approach to [front-of-package] and shelf labeling, we will consider using our regulatory tools toward that end." In other words: Shape up your labels, or we'll do it for you.

Take a look at the U.K. traffic light system. Would you find something similar helpful?

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