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Using Labels



When shopping for a new dishwasher, one of the things you probably look at is the machine’s Energy Star rating. The simple, easy-to-understand system explains how energy-efficient the dishwasher is, and the program has long helped Americans reduce their energy use (and save money).
It’s that sort of thinking that a special Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee followed when crafting recommendations for front of package nutrition labels for packaged foods. Unveiled in October, the recommendations were heavily praised by nutrition advocates as a potential step forward in helping Americans make healthier food choices when they buy groceries. 
But it is now up to the federal government to actually do something about the recommendations, and one insider says the time line for getting that done is far from clear.
“This is kind of a starting off point, and it’s really up to them to decide what they chose to do with it,” says Tracy Fox, president of Food Nutrition & Policy Consultants, LLC, who sat on the IOM committee. “As with anything, it’s going to take them really moving on this.”
Fox and her fellow committee members recommended that a standardized labeling system for packaged goods be put into place, one that rates the healthfulness of each product on a points system. The label would include a calorie count for a single serving size and rank the product up to three points, with more points meaning the product is healthier. The points would designate acceptable levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars.
Under the plan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would work together to fine-tune the labeling system and roll it out to consumers.
Fox tells The Inside Track that the goal of the proposed system is to make it easy for a busy shopper to glance at a label and immediately know whether that product is healthy.
“In order to be effective, the front of pack needs to be simple,” Fox says. “It needs to be very straight forward, and it needs to be something people can look at and immediately know what it means.”
While health advocates applauded the IOM’s work, the food industry largely dismissed it. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), for example, said it would stick with its “Facts Up Front” labeling system it launched with the Food Marketing Institute in January. Under that system, food companies can voluntary display key nutrients on the front of their packages.
But some nutrition experts say that system is misleading to consumers, often highlighting positive nutritional attributes but leaving out the bad stuff. And Fox points out that “Facts Up Front” is just one of several labeling systems in the marketplace, which is confusing to consumers.
The goal of the IOM’s work is to create a uniform label that Americans can easy understand, she says.
Despite the opposition, Fox called the industry’s reaction to the IOM’s standardized recommendations “luke-cold,” pointing out they didn’t hit back as hard as they could have in the press. It’s not surprising GMA and its partner groups didn’t immediately abandon its labeling system, Fox adds, considering all the money that’s been invested in it.
The real test of whether the labeling system will move forward is whether the FDA will act, Fox says. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg previously has said she’d like to improve front of package labels, and the agency promised it would continue to study the issue, including the IOM’s recommendations. 
There’s a lot of work left to do before any system can be put into place. For example, focus group testing is needed to see how consumers respond to the labels before a final proposal could be put forth — and that’s after the agency fine-tunes the nutritional data. 
Still, Fox thinks the IOM’s recommendations provide a solid start. “We think the IOM has come up with the best recommendations moving forward,” she says.