The revisions, mandated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), were scheduled to take effect in July 2018, and in July 2019 for smaller manufacturers. Those deadlines were scrapped in June, and the FDA said that the delay in implementation of the new Nutrition Facts Panels on labels would be indefinite.
The postponement of the deadlines is the result of two factors: a changing political view in Washington DC between the previous and the current presidential administrations on the subject of regulations, and strong lobbying from groups and companies in the food and beverage industries.
The fact that the FDA has not set a new deadline for the changes has baffled some observers. It will be “a little longer, or much longer, or much, much longer (or never) before you see these previously reported planned changes in the nutrition facts label,” wrote Bruce Y. Lee in Forbes magazine.
A bit of historical perspective: In 1980, the FDA became involved with an initiative to improve the content and format of food labels. The first dietary guidelines were published. A decade later, nutrition labeling became a requirement through the Nutrition Labeling & Education Act.
In 2002 the Nutrition Label Reform and public commenting began. In 2014, a dozen years later, the FDA proposed two rules on which it requested public comment for the changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel and the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed, which we know as “serving sizes.”
The FDA held a comment period in 2015 for supplemental rules, which included a percent daily value (%DV) for added sugar. Last year, the final rules were published, mandating that the new nutrition label be included on packaging by July 26, 2018.
What The Changes Say
The overall look of the new nutrition panel will change under the regulation. The most significant alteration is that the calorie count per serving will be printed in a much larger bold font for easier visibility. Other changes include:
- An added sugars declaration will be shown, as well as a %DV for added sugars;
- Calories from fat will no longer be included. Consumers found this item to be confusing, researchers say, because it did not provide usable information for the public;
- Multiple changes to %DVs will be included;
- Changes to the mandatory declaration of vitamins and minerals will be reflected, and the declaration of absolute amounts of vitamins and minerals will be provided.
Big Food’s Challenge
After the delay in implementation was announced, the FDA said, “The framework for the extension will be guided by the desire to give industry more time and decrease costs, balanced with the importance of minimizing the transition period during which consumers will see both the old and the new versions of the label in the marketplace.”
The FDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) received appeals to delay implementation of the proposed regulations from trade associations and prominent companies throughout the food and beverage industry in the US. Among the complaints was that implementation could cost up to $4.6 billion industry-wide.
A request to extend the deadline to 2021 was filed jointly with HHS by the American Bakers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, the Corn Refiners Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). Even the Association for Dressings and Sauces and the Vinegar Institute urged postponement of the deadline.
The 2021 date is significant because that is when mandated labels for bioengineered food are scheduled to be required. Prior to his appointment this year as the new FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb was asked his view on the topic.
“I’m philosophically in favor of trying to make sure we do these things efficiently,” he said, “not only because it imposes undue costs on the manufacturers if they’re constantly updating their labels, but we also have to keep in mind it does create confusion for consumers if the labels are constantly changing. So, you want to try to consolidate the label changes when you’re making label changes as a matter of public health, so the information is conveyed accurately and efficiently to the consumers.”
The GMA’s president, Pamela Bailey, echoed Gottlieb’s view. “FDA’s common sense decision will reduce consumer confusion and costs. Food and beverage manufacturers are committed to giving consumers the information and tools they need to make informed choices, such as by updating the Nutrition Facts Panel. But the fast-approaching compliance deadline was virtually impossible to meet without the needed final guidance documents from the FDA. The extension is both reasonable and practical.”
Not all companies appear to be affected adversely by the deadline. Some say that they will be ready to implement the new label changes soon and be completely compliant by next summer, as originally decreed. One of those is Mars, maker of candies, foods, drinks and other products.
Mars spokesman Brad Figel said that postponing the deadline for too long would result in the circulation of two Nutrition Facts Panels in the marketplace for an extended period of time. But he said he wasn’t surprised by the FDA’s decision. “There’s been a lot of pressure to extend the deadline,” he said.
The abandonment of the FDA’s deadline has some organizations quite unhappy. Among them is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a lobby that has advocated for a healthier food system nationwide since 1971. Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s president, said:
“It is mind-boggling that the food industry is fighting transparency and consumer information even though that’s exactly what their customers want. Not only is industry undermining the public’s health – it is undermining its own credibility.
“Food companies are complaining about the costs, saying that the FDA gave them ‘only’ two years to update their labels and that the cost to companies could be as much as $4.6 billion (the high FDA estimate) to meet the July 2018 deadline. However, the potential benefits for consumers total almost $78 billion over a 20-year span, according to the FDA’s high estimate. In fact, some companies are already using the new labels, even though 95% of companies – ones with annual sales of less than $10 million – actually have until July 2019 to use the new label.
“The industry is also complaining that it will have to make decisions without final guidance from the FDA on issues involving dietary fiber and added sugars. The FDA has published draft materials on these questions and sought comment from stakeholders, including industry. In short, the food industry is seeking to delay giving consumers critical nutrition information for as long as possible,” Jacobson said.
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.