Rules on obesity are under review

In its effort to combat obesity, the Bush administration is considering mandating major changes to how food manufacturers label their products.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has submitted two regulations for White House review that would stipulate stricter rules on serving sizes and require industry to feature the amount of calories more prominently.

Because those rules are expected to attract controversy, the FDA is looking to take the unusual step of issuing a “prerule” before issuing a proposed rule. The government usually sets policy by issuing a proposed rule, soliciting comment, and then finalizing the regulation. Under FDA’s approach on this matter, stakeholders would be allowed to comment twice.

Food manufacturers are wary of the FDA’s expected actions. Companies that manufacture products that can be “reasonably consumed at one eating occasion” would be required to change their label.

While some changes have already occurred on many products, even the smallest detail, such as enlarging the word “calorie” on the side panel of a product, can require a complete packaging redesign, according to industry experts.

Alan Matthys, the vice president of federal and state regulation for the National Food Processors Association, said changes to labels initially cause members of his organization to scream.

“Every food label would have to be changed,” Matthys said.
He explained that manufacturers of soft drinks would probably take the brunt of the change because their labels are directly on their containers.

Some beverage companies, such as Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., have committed to voluntarily relabeling their packages. For instance, Coca-Cola last year announced it would relabel its 20-ounce bottle to add statistics that show that the beverage contains 280 calories. Coca-Cola had previously chopped the number of calories into 2 1/2 servings.

The FDA rules were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in December 2004. Usually, OMB clears rules within two months. Kimberly Rawlings, an FDA spokeswoman, speculated that the rules are stuck in limbo because of new leadership at the Department of the Health and Human Services.

Comprehensive labeling is one of the recommendations made by the FDA’s Obesity Working Group (OWG) to curb American obesity, which has risen steadily since the late 1980s. In a March 2004 report, the OWG also advised the FDA to encourage food manufactures to use “comparative labeling statements” to make it easier for consumers to make healthy decisions. The OWG suggested that the FDA work with the Federal Trade Commission to increase supervision over weight-loss products and take action against manufacturers that have inaccurate serving sizes.

Mike Jacobson, the executive director for the Center Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition-advocacy nonprofit group, said that while he thinks most labels are clear enough they could provide more information about the product. He criticized the food industry for its use of serving sizes, saying the practice is misleading.

“The industry likes to do that because it makes the fat and calories look small,” Jacobson said.

Despite attempts by the FDA to force food companies to provide more disclosure, Jacobson said the agency could be more vigilant in the pursuit to make Americans healthier.

“If this administration was really serious, they should urge people not to drink soda pop or at least switch to diet,” he said.