Food labels go to front of packages

Grocery shoppers will soon see the amount of calories, salt, sugar and saturated fat per serving plastered on the front of many popular food and beverage packages. The American Red Cross On Monday, the food industry unveiled its voluntary front-of-pack labeling, called Nutrition Keys, designed to help make healthful choices. The Nutrition Keys also can include up to two other nutrients, such as potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron or protein. The program is designed to "promote healthier lifestyles," says Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which announced the program with the Food Marketing Institute. Consumers will start seeing the labels on some food packages in the next few months, but they won't be widely found until the end of the year. The program applies to packaged foods, but not fresh foods such as individual bananas or apples. The plan is already drawing fire from some critics who say the industry is trying a pre-emptive strike so it doesn't have to use a plan being developed by the Food and Drug Administration. "Just putting those numbers on the front of packages could be confusing rather than helpful," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "People may not know how to use these numbers in the context of a day's diet." The program has not been tested or approved by an impartial group and doesn't contain a simple color-coding system that would help consumers make sense of the numbers, he says. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of Food Politics, says, "It's hard not to be outraged at industry pre-emption of what FDA is trying so hard to do." But Bailey says that last March, first lady Michelle Obama challenged the industry to develop a front-of-pack labeling system to help busy consumers make informed decisions. The White House issued a statement recognizing the companies "for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative" but stating that the FDA "plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts to evaluate whether the label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed." The government asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to come up with ideas for front-of-package labeling. The report on the first phase of that study is out, and the second phase will be released in the fall. The FDA has been reviewing the IOM report.

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