Truth in Labeling

November 11, 1991

For years, food processors have fed a growing consumer appetite for nutritional information with a cacophony of health claims, artful omissions and misrepresentation. Now the shoe is on the other foot. An extraordinary and wide-ranging truth-in-labeling initiative led by the Food and Drug Administration promises an overhaul of food marketing and promotion in this country. Under a collection of regulatory proposals carrying out the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, all but the smallest manufacturers will be obliged to put uniform information on their products and follow strict rules on health and nutritional marketing.

In large measure, this move expands the already routine practice of nutritional labeling which covers about 60 percent of packaged foods and 40 percent of meat and poultry products. What it also does -- and this is the important part -- is regulate serving sizes and content claims, the chief tools of the industry's marketing illusionists. Food companies won't be able to use Lilliputian portions to pass off products as low fat or low calorie. So, too, will go the common marketing ruse of slapping "no cholesterol" labels on food that never had any in the first place, but is loaded with fat.

This revolution portends enormous benefits for an aging American population. Manufacturers will no longer be able to foist quasi-healthy foods and fanciful labeling off on unsophisticated consumers. Those who want to stay in the game will have to play by new rules. This means re-working existing products and coming up with new ones that are really nutritious.

Not surprisingly, the industry is unenthusiastic about reforms that will force retooling of entire product lines. It expects to spend $2.8 billion on new labels and related costs. The Office of Management and Budget and Vice President Quayle's Council on Competitiveness fret about the economic impact on small business. But it is mainly big players who will be affected, the same companies, it should be noted, that spent millions breaking into the healthy/nutritious niche in the first place.

It's being broadly hinted that retooling costs will ultimately be passed onto consumers. That is doubtful, given the prevailing economic climate, fast-fading brand loyalty and intense store rivalry. We think this plan is worth some temporary disruption in the marketplace. For too long, food processors have played fast and loose with vital information people use to make decisions about their health. It's time for some real truth in labeling.

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