Food Fight: Helpful information vs. consumer overload

New stakeholders in the food sector are devising their own nutritional labeling strategies ahead of the FDA.

The issue of food labeling has taken center stage, with retailers, trade associations, and manufacturers looking to develop strategies of their own - an area formerly left largely to the FDA. Leaders in the food industry are divided on whether these new players are showing leadership and helping consumers make better choices or if selling more product is the goal and too many voices will ultimately confuse the consumer.

When the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), in partnership with the Food Marketing Institute, introduced Nutrition Keys, its voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labeling initiative, some health advocates charged it did little to help consumers maintain healthy diets or reverse obesity rates and chronic disease caused by poor eating habits.

Those advocates include Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

"It is all about marketing," she says. "It's an effort to keep profits coming in. It has nothing to do with health."

Nestle has been one of the most outspoken critics of Nutrition Keys on her blog, www.foodpolitics.com, as well as in bylined articles for publications such as The Atlantic, arguing the information on the label will be of little use to consumers. "They have completely undermined the FDA," she contends.

Critics had hoped the GMA would wait for the FDA to provide industry guidelines, following a second and final report due this fall from the Institute of Medicine, an independent, nonprofit organization. The institute's first report, released in October 2010, evaluated the nutrition science that underlines most food labeling systems. The second report is expected to evaluate how consumers understand and perceive front-of-pack labeling.

Siobhan DeLancey, press officer at the FDA, tells PRWeek, "Determining an optimal front-of-pack system is a complicated endeavor. As a science-based agency, the FDA is committed to grounding its decision in nutritional science and carefully designed and interpreted consumer research."

Proactive stance
As the FDA waits on that final report, the industry association, along with its member food and beverage product manufacturers, have taken the hot-button public policy issue into their own hands. And they're not the only ones.

Walmart, with the blessing of first lady Michelle Obama, announced a healthy food initiative, including plans to develop a logo that would help shoppers identify healthy foods. Meanwhile, other retailers have adopted NuVal, a nutritional scoring system developed by non-industry nutrition experts.

While such moves have clearly rankled some, others such as consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest credit the industry for doing something.

"One of GMA's goals is to pre-empt anything by the FDA or others and to occupy the field, but maybe it's time for some experimentation," says the Center's executive director Michael Jacobson. "If Nutrition Keys is beneficial, great. But if it pre-empts something better, that's bad."

It begs the question: can public policy-makers possibly stay in front of such a loaded health issue?

For its part, the GMA makes no bones about its ambitions for Nutrition Keys, which would move nutrient information (calories, saturated fat, sodium, and total sugar content) onto the front of packages. The label would also display "nutrients to encourage," including certain vitamins, calcium, and potassium.

The latter is an inclusion not endorsed by the first FDA-sponsored Institute of Medicine report, which recommended only including the amount of calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium - in other words, the main contributors linked to diseases associated with poor diet.

Still, Mary Sophos, EVP for policy and strategic planning at the GMA, says, "We're hoping Nutrition Keys becomes the industry standard. We understand from what the FDA and others in the administration have said that their process is ongoing, but they are also interested in evaluating this industry initiative."

The FDA's DeLancey tells PRWeek in a written statement: "FDA recognizes and appreciates the industry's interest in developing a standard front-of-pack label. We are interested in learning more about how industry members will actually use the new format on its products."

Educating the public
The GMA plans to launch a $50 million, 12-month consumer education campaign starting this fall. Following a competitive selection process, it hired BBDO New York (along with sister companies Integer, PHD, and Proximity), FoodMinds, and Edelman.

Scott Openshaw, the GMA's director of communications, says FoodMinds, with support from Edelman will lead stakeholder outreach, which, Sophos adds, will be a crucial part of the campaign.

"There are so many important groups in this debate, and they talk to consumers all the time about these issues," she explains. "We want to make sure the public knows about Nutrition Keys and understands how it works. Hopefully, they'll be able to spread the message and leverage their communications so we can increase outreach to consumers."

If Nutrition Keys can gain significant traction in the marketplace, it could put GMA in the driver's seat, says Jacobson. "Because it is coming from the industry association, it will be pretty widely used," he says. "If the FDA tried to institute its own labeling, the industry would likely say, 'Hey, we've invested all this money into this labeling, at least give it a chance. Don't replace it before it's evaluated.'"

The FDA may need to evaluate more than just Nutrition Keys. In January, Walmart introduced its "nutrition charter," a multi-pronged strategy that includes reducing the amount of sodium and added sugars in its packaged foods. The retailer is also developing a front-of-package seal, which would help shoppers identify healthier food options such as whole grain cereals and unsweetened canned fruit.

According to Lorenzo Lopez, director, media relations at Walmart, the icon will appear on its own Great Value brand, likely beginning late this year. The icon is also something it would make available to its food manufacturers. Walmart is still evaluating Nutrition Keys, but the executive said the implementation of its own icon would not discount the retailer's adoption of Nutrition Keys, since they could work in a complementary manner.

The Walmart initiative is a collaboration with first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, which aims to curb childhood obesity. Such private-public partnerships are a good thing for the industry, says Sally Squires, SVP and director of health and wellness communications for Powell Tate. "It is bold to have taken those steps," she says. "Both groups are showing leadership and they're helping guide the public to healthier choices."

Others, however, worry what kind of message such a partnership sends to federal agencies such as the FDA. "The partnership sends a really complicated message - it is OK for Walmart to do this [before the FDA introduces its own regulations] because it is big," says Nestle. "The federal agencies may find themselves having a lot of trouble doing anything in cooperation with the White House."

Smaller retailers, such as United Supermarkets, Price Chopper, and Brookshire's, have adopted NuVal, a nutritional scoring system that ranks food on a scale of one to 100 - the higher the score, the better the nutrition. Currently, NuVal is used at 15 chains in 1,030 stores across 23 states.

Mike Nugent, GM for NuVal, says he understands the trepidation the industry has with labels, given the effect they can have on sales. Based on its own preliminary numbers, "in healthful categories such as cereal, yogurt, and breads, people are very sensitive to the scoring," he says. "But you don't tend to see a lot of [buying] changes in categories such as cake mix."

The NuVal scoring system isn't governed by the FDA, but Nugent says he has met twice with the agency and would like the program to grow. "I'd be wrong to say our goal isn't to become a standard for the industry," he says. "And you can't do it by alienating the industry, government, or the public, so we work with everyone we can."

Other popular food labels include the American Heart Association's heart checkmark, which is currently on 850 different products for 150 different companies. "We have a 95% renewal rate from food products [still in the marketplace]," says Kim Stitzel, associate director of nutrition and obesity at the organization. "In a recent analysis, we found products that participated in the program typically saw a 4% to 7% lift in sales."

With these new systems, as well as already-established labels such as NuVal and the heart checkmark, what is the risk that this will all be too much for consumers? "There is a very big risk that consumers will get confused," says Squires. "There's also a risk that too many systems will start to feel like clutter and consumers will feel bombarded with various icons and labels that they simply tune out."

The FDA may ultimately decide between two schools of thought: stick to just providing certain nutritional information, as the GMA is doing, or make a judgment call based on the nutritional information, as Walmart plans to do.

"It may come down to those two approaches," notes Squires. "The FDA will be able to determine the effects of Walmart's labeling versus GMA's because it will be able to see the lift in incremental sales for products that have the symbol versus those that don't."

Whatever happens, the issue of food labeling has become more complicated, not least of which for the FDA. "It's too strong to say that Walmart - or any one entity - shapes FDA public policy," says Squires. "But the FDA doesn't operate in a vacuum. As the agency considers various steps, the leadership will likely take many things into account, including what Walmart and others have done."

Label makers: a timeline
February 2010: The FDA asks the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to convene a committee to examine front-of-pack nutrition rating systems, including the disadvantages and advantages of various approaches.

October 2010: The IOM publishes its first report, in which it says the most important contents to be listed on the front-of-pack label are saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.

January 20, 2011: With the first lady's support, Walmart announces a new "nutrition charter," which includes the development of a seal to help shoppers identify more healthful foods.

January 26, 2011: The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute announce the impending launch of Nutrition Keys, a voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling system that moves nutrient information, such as saturated fat and sodium, to the front of the pack. The labels can also display "nutrients to encourage," such as certain vitamins and calcium.

Summer 2011: As companies introduce Nutrition Keys into their regularly scheduled labeling changes, products will start showing up on store shelves with the new label.

Fall 2011: The IOM plans to release its second and final report, which will evaluate how consumers understand and perceive front-of-pack labeling. The GMA plans to launch a 12-month, $50-million consumer education campaign, with FoodMinds and Edelman providing PR support for the program. In addition, Walmart expects to unveil its new seal, which will help shoppers better identify healthier food options.

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