WASHINGTON—Nutrition advocates and food-industry groups are revving up for a fight over whether an additional label should go on the front of many packaged-food items to more clearly indicate whether they pose a health risk.
A long-running debate over what those new labels should look like—and whether they should be required—is intensifying ahead of a White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health later this month.
The Food and Drug Administration already requires most packaged foods to display a detailed nutritional label, but they are typically placed on the back or side of the item. Advocates want another, more condensed label on the front of the package that would visually flag certain health risks, such as high sugar or saturated-fat content, at a time of rising national rates of obesity among adults and children, as well as other diseases.
“We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health,” said
president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog organization. “This is a chance to make that information more prominent, more readable and more useful.”
Industry groups say there is insufficient real-world evidence to show such labels would influence consumer behavior. They also contend the FDA doesn’t have the authority to mandate front-of-package labels, which they said could pose a First Amendment threat, because companies could view them as a form of forced speech.
“There really is a lack of robust evidence” to support advocates’ claims around front labels, said
vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association, and some of the proposed labels would “demonize” certain foods, she said.
A spokeswoman for the FDA said last week that it “plans to help empower consumers by providing more informative labeling to help consumers identify foods that can contribute to healthier diets.” The agency said it is monitoring the implementation of front labels in other countries and starting to conduct its own consumer focus groups around front labels.
The agency also said it is working on updating the definition of a healthy food and developing a symbol to represent it.
An outside task force of 26 food and health experts said in their recommendations ahead of the White House food summit that the FDA should develop an effective front-labeling plan.
“‘We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health.’”
A footnote, however, disclosed that the task force itself was divided over whether such labels should be voluntary, mandatory or implemented in stages, and whether the labels should include warnings.
Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would require the FDA to create standardized, front-of-package labeling for all food that has a nutrition label, which excludes some food such as raw fruits and vegetables.
“People just don’t have the patience or the time to be detectives at store shelves, hunting for data that may be somewhere on the package,” said Sen.
(D., Conn.), one of the bill’s sponsors.
Republicans have been skeptical that additional labels would work to sway consumer behavior and said they aren’t necessary, because packaged foods already have required nutritional labels.
“I’m not too eager to push for big changes unless they can prove there’s some huge benefit to it,” said Rep.
of Nebraska, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition panel.
A trio of groups including the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition with the FDA last month, calling on the agency to establish mandatory front-of-package nutritional labels for all packaged foods that would require a calorie count, and interpretive designs to help people understand the label.
For example, some versions use an octagon shaped like a stop sign to warn whether a food is high in added sugars, sodium or saturated fat, while others use the red, yellow and green colors of a traffic signal to distill nutritional information into a graphic.
Some industry groups have launched voluntary programs, including Facts Up Front, started in 2011 by the Consumer Brands Association and FMI, The Food Industry Association. About 150 companies use those voluntary labels, which display nutritional information, including calories, saturated fat and sodium, as well as many as two “nutrients to encourage,” such as fiber or potassium.
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The program regularly updates its style guidelines and is currently swapping in a box for added sugars, instead of total sugars, which includes naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit, Ms. Wagner said.
Critics said the industry program doesn’t do enough to deter people from buying highly processed foods, which are often high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.
“That was a food-industry initiative to head off anything that might actually work,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor emerita at New York University.
Research into real-world consumers’ behavior is expanding as more countries adopt either voluntary or mandatory front-package labels. Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Iran and Israel are among the countries that have mandatory front labels for certain foods, with Canada joining them in 2026.
An August 2021 study of 2,381 Chilean households published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that overall sugar in food purchases fell 10%, saturated fat declined 3.9% and sodium dropped by 4.7%, compared with a scenario where the front labels weren’t required.
Industry trade groups contend that only Congress can mandate front-of-package labels. Nutrition groups disagree, saying that the FDA has previously revised labeling requirements.
While the FDA has the authority to issue regulations to educate consumers about nutrition, whether or not they can compel companies to share information “is always a battle that exists between the agency and First Amendment advocates,” said
a partner at Arnold & Porter.
To avert a potential court challenge, the FDA might seek to broker a compromise that would make the front labels voluntary but establish specific standards for their use, said
a former associate chief counsel at the FDA and now a director at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara P.C., a law firm that specializes in food and drug issues.
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