FDA analyzing front of package labels

October 21, 2009

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Oct. 20 that it would seek to clear up the confusion caused by a surge of nutritional claims that manufacturers have begun to make on packaged food labels. Point of purchase labeling including Front of Package (FOP) labeling is voluntary information that is intended to convey to consumers the nutritional attributes of a food. Point of purchase labeling often includes symbols that are typically linked to a set of nutritional criteria developed by food manufacturers, grocery stores, trade organizations, and health organizations. The selected nutrients and the nutrient levels required for eligibility vary among the different symbol programs in use.

The FDA recognizes that point of purchase labeling can be a way of promoting informed food choices and helping consumers construct healthier diets in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, the FDA’s research has found that with FOP labeling, people are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts label on the information panel of foods (usually, the back or side of the package). It is thus essential that both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading.

The agency is currently analyzing FOP labels that appear to be misleading. The agency is also looking for symbols that either expressly or by implication are nutrient content claims. The agency is assessing the criteria established by food manufacturers for such symbols and comparing them to FDA’s regulatory criteria. While nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling is currently voluntary, it is still subject to the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that prohibit false or misleading claims and restrict nutrient content claims to those defined in FDA regulations.

The FDA is also developing a proposed regulation that would define the nutritional criteria that would have to be met by manufacturers making broad FOP or shelf label claims concerning the nutritional quality of a food, whether the claim is made in text or in symbols. FDA’s intent is to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP nutrition labeling must be based.
In addition, the agency plans to work with the food industry—retailers and manufacturers alike—as well as nutrition and design experts and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health.

FDA guidance letter

The New York Times article

The Washington Post article