FDA eyes moving food labels out front

The Food and Drug Administration is not ruling out requiring the nation’s food makers to list nutritional information on the front of their products.

Regulations issued last week as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s health and fitness initiative updated for the first time in 20 years the regulations for how companies list nutritional information on food. The effort requires more prominent display of calorie information, clarifies serving size definitions and requires the inclusion of information about added sugars.

But those regulations stopped short of requiring that the labels be posted on the front of packages, which is a priority for public interest groups and some members of Congress.

The FDA is looking closely at the issue, said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.

“The agency is seeking a science-based solution and has not made a decision,” she told The Hill.

Consideration of the issue comes as two leading industry groups push a voluntary front-of-package labeling effort. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents hundreds of food and beverage companies, and the Food Marketing Institute, whose members include retailers and grocery chains, announced their “Facts Up Front” campaign in 2011.

The labels, which already appear on the front of some products in stores, contain information on calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. They also can also provide information about other good nutrients, like fiber or calcium, according to a web site for the initiative.

Louis Finkel, the GMA’s executive vice president for government affairs, said the group has had an ongoing discussion with the Obama administration over labeling issues.

He said GMA has “no reason to believe they are advancing a front-of package labeling initiative.”

Finkel said the voluntary effort dovetails nicely with the standards unveiled last week, and declined to speculate on how mandatory front of packaging requirements might impact the industry.

In deciding the best path forward, the FDA is considering the findings of a 2011 report issued by the Institute of Medicine, which recommended the agency move forward with its own front-of-package labeling standard, Eisenman said.

“The FDA is also monitoring the industry-led FOP initiative closely,” she said.

Industry critics, however, are pressing the FDA to act on its own, saying business groups should not be entrusted to set labeling standards.

"Nutrition Facts labels are a success because the FDA, and not the food industry, decides what's on the label and what the label looks like," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest,

"The industry's ‘Facts Up Front' isn't designed to promote the healthiest diets but to keep the government from requiring top-notch front-of-package labeling."