FDA makes big push on food labeling

July 06, 1991|By Marian Burros | Marian Burros,New York Times News Service

From June 21 to July 2, the Food and Drug Administration churned out dozens of proposals intended to solve problems with food-ingredient labeling that have confounded the agency for 25 years.

The agency also proposed voluntary nutrition-labeling guidelines forfresh fish, fruits and vegetables, and is working on mandatory nutrition labeling for all packaged foods.

The proposals would give consumers access to information they have been seeking for years.

The new regulations would affect how sweeteners, artificial colors and other ingredients are listed on nutrition labels.

They would also require disclosure information on the waxes used to coat produce, the percentage of fruit in juices and the ingredients in non-dairy creamers. The hope is that the new regulations will resolve a host of controversies that affect consumer health and spending.

The regulations are now subject to public comment. Some of them are expected to go into effect as soon as Nov. 8. Additional labeling requirements will become law on May 8, 1993, when nutrition labeling on all packaged foods will be mandatory.

"This is the largest amount of food-labeling activity since the early 1970s," said Elizabeth Campbell, chief of the regulations and industry activities branch in the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

"It was a cumulative effect. For years the agency has been building up steam. A lot more people were having problems with labels, I don't mean just consumers, industry too, and we were having problems because we were finding so many misleading labels."

After years of slow motion, this burst of activity has sent the food industry scurrying to make dozens of labeling changes. The industry says it is going to be very difficult to meet the deadlines because 14,000 companies will be required to modify 94,000 labels. The FDA estimates the total cost of relabeling at $250 million.

"This is FDA's big catch-up balloon act," said John R. Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association. "It's 'let's get well overnight.' "

Mr. Cady said that the food industry did not mean to belittle the agency's efforts but felt that the agency should have tried to "get a bettersense of what is doable in X amount of time."

Consumer groups have generally applauded the agency's proposals, some of which were mandated by Congress, while others were developed at the FDA.

Jeff Nedelman, vice president of public affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the the only real point of controversy was over the issue of trade secret formulas, referring to the requirement that companies list by percentage the fruit juices they use in blends.

The three new changes that are set to go into effect Nov. 8 affect fruit juices, artificial colors and so-called standardized foods, foods based on standard recipes like enriched flour or mayonnaise for which the government has not required full ingredient labeling.

When the new regulations governing ingredient listings go into effect, those who read labels will be in for some interesting surprises, including:

* Foods that contain more than one sweetener -- cereals, for example, often have three or more -- will be required to group together all the sweeteners. Grouping the sweeteners will put them higher in the ingredient statement, which must list ingredients in descending order of predominance. Theoretically, at least in some cereals, sweeteners could become the first ingredient.

* Labels will have to to include a statement that ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight. The FDA found at public hearings and meetings last year that many consumers do not know this.

* Artificial colors will be listed by specific name instead of under the general category of "artificial color." Currently, only Yellow No. 5 food coloring must be listed by name because some people are allergic to it.

* The 235 standardized foods will now be required to list their ingredients.

* New rules will govern the disclosure of the variety of wax used to coat fresh fruits and vegetables. The FDA already has a rule requiring disclosure of waxes on produce in retail stores, but it has never enforced the regulation. The old rule is being modified, and the states are being invited to enforce the new regulation.

* Products labeled non-dairy, particularly non-dairy creamers, that contain sodium caseinate will be required to say that the casein is derived from milk. "Non-dairy might be misleading," Ms. Campbell said. "It can be a problem for people who are milk-sensitive.

* The "and/or" labeling permitted for fats and oils, as in soybean ++ oil and/or corn oil, will not be changed, but it will not be extended to sweeteners, a request made by the food industry in the 1970s. Consumer advocates wanted specific fat and oil labeling to allow people to avoid products high in saturated fat, but the food industry said it needed flexibility to take advantage of availability and price changes.

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