Avoiding the regulatory cliff in food marketing

In the business of selling food and nutrition to consumers, understanding the regulatory guardrails is essential.

In the business of selling food and nutrition to consumers, understanding the regulatory guardrails is essential in defining the space in which we operate. The FDA – the government agency responsible for labeling, claims, and food safety – is a fundamental part of setting those guardrails. Within the FDA, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) recently has announced its program priorities for the rest of this year and 2014. These give us a little peek under the tent of the FDA's activities and shed light on both the challenges and opportunities for food and nutrition marketing.

One of the FDA's primary functions is to ensure the safety of the food supply. This is usually achieved through inspections and guidelines for manufacturing. CFSAN's program priorities emphasize a redoubling of food-safety efforts. The Food Safety Modernization Act is the largest sweeping legislation on food safety in 70 years. It shifts the focus from responding to food safety issues to actually preventing them. The CFSAN priorities will focus on reducing contamination in the food supply by implementing greater control standards.  

There will also be an increased focus on safety controls all along the food chain from farm to table. Ensuring that food is handled safely from harvest to plate is a fundamental principle in reducing the risk of food-borne illness. This means more standards, more inspections, and more safety valves throughout the process. It also means more attention from the FDA. Food companies will have to become more diligent in maintaining safety standards and complying with good manufacturing practices. Additionally, the industry should have a standing communications plan for addressing any food safety issues as government and consumers have a decreasing tolerance for unsafe food. The public-opinion cost of a food-borne illness is astronomical.

To achieve a greater flow of information to consumers, the FDA just announced its newly established Twitter feed – @FDAFood. The feed will provide timely information on food, food safety, and dietary supplements. This increased flow of information raises the stakes for companies to be compliant with food safety standards. It also means that warnings on supplements, new information on nutrition, or other claims will become more readily available to consumers, thereby accelerating the response time from the food and nutrition industry on any particular issue.

CFSAN also oversees nutrition education. One large part of that effort is the nutrition facts panel and other food-labeling information. For a few years now, there have been discussions about updating the food label to include clearer guidance on making food choices. In the current priorities, CFSAN is aiming for modifications in food labels to improve consumer understanding. A study in Preventive Medicine's October issue found that red, yellow, and green indicators on food labels for less healthful (red and yellow labels focusing on sodium and saturated fat) and more healthful food (green labels) can help consumers make better food choices. Will CFSAN take the traffic light route? Possibly.

Coupled with food labeling, education is the continued focus of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. CFSAN continues to generate new educational efforts to help consumers understand and embrace the 2010 version of the guidelines, which focuses on plant-based diets, healthy types of fats, and limiting calories. However, in a little more than a year, the new 2015 version of the guidelines will be launched and new educational opportunities will arise.

And speaking of opportunities, CFSAN's educational initiatives are rife with them for the food and nutrition industry. First, the new labeling may offer more ways for the industry to communicate the healthfulness of its products, but it might also inspire product innovation such as reducing sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar to produce more healthful foods. Furthermore, the food industry can become a real partner in promoting the Dietary Guidelines through websites, social media, point of purchase, and advertising. In fact, with new menu and vending labeling requirements, point-of-sale education may work to the industry's advantage by creating a more informed consumer.

In the coming years, the FDA will strengthen its food safety and nutrition education efforts. By doing so, it will establish the boundaries in which the food and nutrition industry must operate, but there is flexibility and opportunity within those guardrails. Strengthening the food and nutrition story and capitalizing on enhanced communications channels such as social media will allow the industry to leverage the changes and better engage consumers. Seeking the opportunity within the guardrails will help elevate food companies to another level, thus enabling them to avoid falling off the regulatory cliff.

Michael DeAngelis, MS, MPH, RD, is the nutrition director at Porter Novelli.

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