October 16, 2014

FDA Misses the Mark With Food Labeling Rules

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As the battle to trim American waistlines heats up, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has joined in the fray with not one, but two rules aimed at improving the nation’s diet. The rules constitute the biggest change to the Nutrition Facts label in over two decades. Despite the comprehensiveness of the effort, the fact that the rules were built on poor analysis makes it unlikely they will curb obesity or improve public health. Like the whole grain biscuits and unappetizing vegetables that are being forced onto the lunch trays of unhappy schoolchildren, the FDA’s efforts should end up in the trash (or at least a recycling bin).

The FDA proposed the rules based on the authority granted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) to regulate how information is displayed on food products. The first of the proposed rules, the Food Labeling rule, includes a laundry list of potential changes that are designed to “assist consumers in maintaining healthy dietary practices.” The changes required are numerous, involving both formatting and content changes to labels, increases in recordkeeping, and new analytic requirements.

The second rule, the Serving Size rule, focuses on labeling changes affecting food packages that hold a small number of servings. Specifically, the rule requires that foods in packages that contain less than 200 percent of “reference amounts customarily consumed” (RACC)—that is, small packages that are nonetheless larger than a traditional serving size—must nonetheless be labeled as single-serving containers, while food packages with 200–400 percent of RACC must employ a dual labeling format that gives nutrition information for both amount per serving and amount per package. Additionally, the rule defines new RACC for a number of products and gives a new serving size for breath mints, among other small changes.

Together, the two rules result in major changes in how nutrition information is conveyed to the American public, resulting in billions of dollars in new costs, much of which will ultimately be passed on to consumers. It is disturbing that the agency made only a halfhearted—and ultimately failed—attempt to determine whether those costs are justified by corresponding benefits to the public.

Why Regulate?

The FDA gives two reasons to justify the proposed regulations. First, the FDA argues that it needs to update the Nutrition Facts label requirements with regard to recommended Daily Values (DV) and serving sizes. This is a laudable goal given the advancements in nutritional science over the last two decades. For example, the rule updates the DV for fiber based on a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) “Dietary Reference Intakes” report. The new value is set at the level associated with the greatest reduction in risk of coronary heart disease. Similarly, serving sizes are updated to reflect amounts that people consume today, as opposed to what was consumed in decades past.

Second, the FDA claims that food labels are not currently designed to promote ideal healthy behaviors. The agency points out that while many consumers report using the label, they find some of its information confusing. Consequently, the FDA claims that improving the label’s design could potentially improve consumers’ ability to understand and use the label, which, if successful, would ultimately lead consumers to make healthier food choices.

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