Food industry finds new label rules hard to swallow Terminology, cost being disputed

November 07, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi | Charlyne Varkonyi,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Under the government's new food-labeling regulations, consumers can be confident that the words on the label accurately reflect what's in the package, Dr. David A. Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said yesterday at a news conference announcing the long-awaited proposals.

But some of the proposed rules might not survive. Representatives of the food industry say they aren't happy with definitions of terms such as "low fat" and "light." And they say the FDA has underestimated the economic impact the label changes would have on their industry.

The National Food Processors Association has endorsed most of the proposals, which were made jointly by the FDA and the Agriculture Department, but spokesman Roger Coleman said the trade group might ask for an extension beyond May 1993, when the rules are scheduled to go into effect, for companies that could suffer economic hardship because of them.

The association also said the relabeling would cost $2 billion in the first year. The FDA's estimate is $80 million a year over 20 years.

The International Food Information Council, a non-profit group representing food and beverage companies, said the regulations' definition for "low fat" -- 3 grams of fat per

100 grams of food -- would eliminate the use of that term on many foods in which fat has been substantially reduced.

The council said products should be permitted to fit into one of four categories ranging from "low fat" (a maximum of 4 grams per serving) to "reduced fat" (having at least a one-third reduction in fat). The trade group also supports defining "light" to include foods that are modified to be lower in fat without considering calories. The new FDA definition of "light" is one-third fewer calories.

"The manufacturers would like to continue to pass off products that are not really low in fat as low in fat," said Bruce Silverglade, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has lobbied for labeling changes.

"The rules that FDA is setting for low-fat claims will cause food companies to develop new processed foods that are truly low in fat," he said. "Now they will have the incentive not to make just a nominal improvement in their products but to make truly significant fat reductions."

Dr. Kessler hopes the proposals also will encourage technological innovations leading to a greater variety of healthful products on the market.

"It's no secret that the food label has been a source of some confusion and considerable debate," he said. "We expect the proposal to help shift the action from the word processor to the laboratory as the food industry seeks to create healthy new products."

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