New food labels to provide more nutritional data Restaurant menus are exempted

December 03, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration yesterday announced a new food labeling system requiring manufacturers to disclose more nutritional information on almost all packaged and processed foods.

The new labels -- the focus of a bitter dispute within the administration -- should begin appearing in stores next year and should be on all containers and packets by May 1994, at an estimated cost of $2 billion to the industry. Restaurant menus are excluded from the new regulations to avoid turning them into book-length documents.

"The Tower of Babel in food labels has come down, and American consumers are the winners," said Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan. "For the first time, consumers will be able to use a single format for virtually all processed foods to compare nutrition values and make healthy choices."

The labels not only disclose the calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein content by weight but also put the food in the context of a daily sample diet of 2,000 calories and 65 grams of fat, as advocated by the Food and Drug Administration. Another column was added to the label giving the same information for a 2,500-calorie diet, including 80 grams of fat.

Dr. Sullivan said the new label was chosen over other formats in four consumer tests, but he acknowledged that some grocery shoppers may find them confusing at first. "I would agree that someone looking at it for the first time might not understand it, but with a little education this is going to be very readily understood by the American consumer, and therefore could be very helpful," he said.

The format has been under negotiation among the administration, the food industry and consumer groups for more than two years and led to a confrontation between Dr. Sullivan and Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan. Mr. Bush settled the argument this week, siding largely with Dr. Sullivan and David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Central to the inter-departmental dispute was whether the labels should be based on a typical diet of 2,000 calories.

Mr. Madigan argued that the notion of a typical diet was misleading, given the wide variance of individuals' daily food intake, and that such detailed information would be confusing to consumers. The meat industry, which is regulated by his department, also objected to dietary statistics that could lessen the appeal of meats.

Fresh meat and poultry are not included in the regulations. But the Agriculture Department's Food, Safety and Inspection Service will require labels for meat and poultry products similar to the ones for processed food.

Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Kessler argued that the detailed nutritional information was essential to improving the ordinary American's ability to select a healthy diet. Mr. Bush ruled in favor of putting the food in the context of a healthy diet.

Another argument centered on whether restaurant menus would subject to the new labeling. Mr. Bush, citing his objection to "intrusive" regulation, sided with Mr. Madigan in excluding menus.

Mr. Madigan, who did not attend the news conference to introduce the new labels, issued a statement saying he was "satisfied with President Bush's decision on the food label format."

Another issue was the definition of "light" as a description of content. It was finally agreed that the "light fat" label could be applied only to foods with a 50 percent reduction in their original fat content.

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat who authored the 1990 legislation requiring the new labels, welcomed the changes as "a giant step in the right direction," but said the system should be extended to raw meats and poultry.

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