Dems launch food labeling overhaul

A group of congressional Democrats want clearer labels on the foods stocking the shelves in the nation’s grocery stores.

On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) unveiled legislation calling for the Obama administration to issue sweeping new regulations for labels on food packages.

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The lawmakers say the new labels, which would be the first major refurbishing of food labeling requirements since 1990, are necessary to combat obesity and give Americans information they need to make healthy choices.

“This is all about consumer choices, basically how consumers can make healthy choices and educated choices about what they buy and what they ultimately eat,” Pallone said.

The Food Labeling Modernization Act would call for the Food and Drug Administration to create a single labeling system for all food products, require companies to declare the percent daily values for calories and sugar in their foods and make sure that packages containing foods “reasonably consumed on a single occasion” are described as containing one serving size.

The bill would also set definitions for terms like “healthy,” “natural” and “made with whole grains,” which lawmakers and public interest groups have said are currently virtually meaningless. That would ensure that food companies could only apply such terms when they are warranted, not simply as a marketing technique.

Those provisions “make these labels more reliable because they make them more truthful and accurate, and they make the labels easier to understand, more accessible, more comprehensive,” said Blumenthal.

The lawmakers said that the provision would help consumers choose healthy foods, which could reduce obesity rates and end up taking a bite out of healthcare costs.

“Truthful labeling provisions can help prevent disease and they can also save money in the long-term,” Blumenthal added. “Preventive healthcare is the most cost-effective.”

Food industry groups were skeptical that the legislation would clear things up for shoppers.

“Based on our preliminary analysis of this legislation, we are very concerned that it could have serious unintended consequences on a variety of products and will only serve to confuse consumers,” Brian Kennedy, a spokesman with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), told The Hill in an email.

“GMA agrees with and supports federal laws requiring food labels to be truthful and non-misleading,” he added, though noted that the current regulatory system was “robust.”

Lawmakers described the bill as part of a broader effort to get companies to tell consumers more about the food they are buying.

Later this year, the FDA will issue requirements for chain restaurants and vending machine operators that will force them to post the number of calories in the various foods they sell. Under the rule, restaurants with 20 or more locations would have to post the calorie information on their menus.

The measure was a controversial provision of the Affordable Care Act, and has been fought vigorously by food companies that say it would saddle them with unnecessary and expensive requirements. This year, health organizations, grocery store groups and fast food companies including Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut and Starbucks have spent millions of dollars to influence the FDA’s rule writing.

DeLauro said that the food labeling law would be the “next crucial step.”

“It is always better to make it simpler to make a healthy choice,” she said. “Transparency, improving labeling, will help consumers to do just that.”

-- This story was updated with additional information at 4:19 p.m.