Controversy continues over US food labeling reform

American regulators have flip-flopped over the need for more explicit food labeling on high-sugar and genetically modified goods. The debate rages on, reports Thomas Lawrence

The clamor for clear-cut food labeling is reaching fever pitch in America. In a recent Reuters survey, 84% of adults agreed that nutrition information labels in grocery stores should be a government requirement. 64% support similar rules for restaurants.

John Turenne FCSI has worked closely with legislators to develop initiatives around food sustainability. He argues transparency over ingredients in packaged foods is a matter of national importance. “Considering two-thirds of US adults and one-third of US children are overweight or obese, I believe the public is significantly concerned,” says Turenne. Consumers and policymakers alike are waking up to the need for increased attentiveness, he notes. “Experts predict that the treatment of obesity-related diseases could total $344 billion in 2018, accounting for more than 20% of US health care spending.”

Food labeling stalemate

Despite sustained public enthusiasm, legal backing for more transparent food labeling has not been forthcoming. Initially approved in May 2016, Obama-era plans to enforce labeling compliance were due to take force next year. But, following Donald Trump’s entry to the White House, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) stance shifted.

The FDA now plans to extend the timeframe for big companies – those with sales of $10 million or more per year – to January 2020, while smaller companies have until January 2021 to comply. It’s argued this is in response to calls from food manufacturers for a more lenient deadline.

Turenne is critical. “I believe any time we delay the need to address public health it will have negative effects,” he says. “Think about those who suffer or become part of these negative statistics while the government or big business force delays. Is that fair to those who can act now?”

Reactions in the industry have been mixed. Many manufacturing groups have welcomed postponement, arguing it will give producers more time to prepare. This includes the Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the sector’s biggest trade bodies.

But Turenne is certainly not alone in his dismay. Nutritionists and consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have attacked delays to this significant public health initiative, already some time in the making. And the GMA has some hefty opponents among manufacturers. In the last week, Nestlé announced it would break away from the trade association by the end of the year after a series of run-ins. Disagreements over the GMA’s decision to lobby against Obama’s original push for increased transparency was one of the most high profile of these.

A conundrum for consultants?

The government will assess views on the delay to food labeling regulations in a consultation period, ending in November. After this, foodservice consultants may only have a short interval to brief their clients on the next steps.

While convinced that more food labeling transparency is a necessity, Turenne acknowledges regulation can be burdensome for businesses. Finding innovative ways to help firms adhere to new compliance rules will be crucial. Turenne says this could include “nutritional consultation and software, working with suppliers to access the information and marketing campaigns.”

Consultants should get behind the momentum of food labeling reform rather than fight against it. Many companies have already introduced more informative food labels, preempting the government and tapping into public enthusiasm. In addition, pressure groups are gradually securing reform in other parts of the sector. A suit filed on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Consumers’ League in a District Court “could pave the way for the FDA to finally begin enforcing menu labeling requirements,” according to Turenne.

Crucially, inaction around GM ingredients and high levels of sugar is precipitating a public health crisis. The longer action is delayed, the more severe the problem becomes. “Studies indicate that many of our most severe health conditions, from respiratory diseases to cancers, are closely linked to our industrialized food and farming practices,” says Turenne.” If we don’t start addressing these issues now – through legislation, or other means – in the future our descendants will surely be asking, ‘What were they thinking?’”

Whether due to popular demand or concern for public wellbeing, it’s clear that food labeling change is on the horizon. Foodservice consultants have a dual responsibility: to educate themselves and their clients, and guide legislation in the years ahead to ensure it is fair for all.

Thomas Lawrence 

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