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Nutrition labeling to benefit consumers; food industry.

The lingering recession proved to be the dominant issue in 1991 for the food industry. We can only hope the economy will improve this year to the point where we can turn our attention to other matters, because there certainly are many other pressing challenges affecting the food sector.

One of the most sweeping is the recently-unveiled list of changes in food labeling, developed by the Food and Drug Administration following congressional passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Every single element in the food chain -- manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers -- will be affected to some degree, whether they handle produce, groceries, meats or frozen foods. In fact, the FDA estimates that the 17,000 companies it regulates will have to change, at least to some extent, more than 250,000 labels, all within the next year and a half. Many in the industry believe that quarter-million figure is far too conservative, and that the true total of labels that will need to be altered could be more than 350,000.

What's at stake in the relabeling effort is having the government decide, once and for all, what terms like "low-fat," "reduced sodium," "light" and "lite" really mean. No longer will food processors be able to manipulate serving sizes and product weights in an attempt to describe their products as "low-calorie." In addition to defining the meaning of descriptive terms like the ones just mentioned, the proposed FDA regulations also will require more detailed information about the salt, fat, cholesterol and fiber content of food products. The FDA will be much stricter about allowing products to tout the purported health benefits of ingredients that suddenly become fashionable to eat, such as olive and canola oils, oat bran, psyllium, and omega-3 fatty acids, to name a few.

While associations like NAWGA that represent food companies generally prefer to keep government regulation of our industry to an absolute minimum, ultimately the new food labeling guidelines will be beneficial, to consumers and to the industry itself. Yes, it will take several years and a lot of money to evaluate products using the new ingredient standards. Some food manufacturers will have to reformulate both the size and the content of their products to cope with the label law. Such a grand undertaking won't be cheap; it may cost as much as $3 billion. But the long term benefits resulting from greater consumer confidence and a more level playing field will be worth the short term hassles.

One of the very few problems with the American food industry is that consumers were bombarded in the 1980s with so many conflicting promotions that many became bewildered about the food they ate. When companies start promoting the supposed healthfulness of oat bran beer or oat bran potato chips, the average shopper is bound to be confused and ultimately rather skeptical about the merits of the products they purchase. In fairness to the manufacturers, who introduce an average of 12,000 new SKUs every year, the people who market those products have to use some unique angle to promote the new items. But terms like "fresh," "natural," and "fat-free" simply got tossed around a bit too frequently, and I think many in the industry felt it was time to put reasonable restraints on some of the more excessive nutritional claims.

What makes the proposed labeling regulations all the more significant is that the FDA will be joined in adopting its new standards by the USDA. Meat and poultry processors regulated by the USDA, who now face only voluntary government labeling requirements, may well be required to label their products in a fashion similar to the FDA-regulated products within four years, if the Agriculture Department's voluntary meat labeling program doesn't receive widespread support. This in itself represents a dramatic step toward creating a more level playing field between fresh and processed meat products. Additionally, the FDA is asking retailers to voluntarily display nutritional information for seafood and fresh produce -- a program that could become mandatory within two years.

Of course, all this information will be useless unless consumers are sufficiently well-educated to use it properly. All the nutritional information in the world won't matter unless people read and comprehend it, and teaching literacy and dietetics is really not the responsibility of our industry. But we can demonstrate our concern by providing the public detailed information that is in their best interest to know. Ultimately, it will make for a fairer and more competitive food system.

John R. Block is president of the National-American Wholesale Grocers, Association (NAWGA), and its foodservice division, the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA), based in Falls Church, VA. He served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture fro 1981 to 1986.
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Title Annotation:effects of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990
Author:Block, John R.
Publication:Frozen Food Digest
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Words:787
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