The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has temporarily loosened labeling and information rules for food manufacturers for the fifth time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Intended to ease manufacturers’ supply-chain difficulties, advocacy groups are concerned that the changes will become permanent and that they will present problems for consumers concerned about tracking the origin of their food.
The new guidance allows manufacturers to substitute hard-to-source ingredients in their products without changing the label. And it allows vending machine operators the freedom to omit calorie information for foods sold.
Advocacy groups say the guidance, announced Friday, makes it more difficult for people with food allergies to be confident that their food won’t cause an allergic reaction. It walks back some of the advances vending machines have made in the past year in offering healthier choices.
Other temporary changes that the FDA has issued since the start of the pandemic address nutrition labeling on food packages, menu labeling at fast-food chains and two involving the packaging and labeling of eggs. These rules have eased requirements for nutrition fact labeling on restaurant food repurposed for retail sales.
The fifth rule change eases requirements on vending machine operators to provide calorie information for foods sold during the pandemic. The rule stated that a manufacturer may swap secondary ingredients so long as the stand-in “does not cause any adverse health effect (including food allergens, gluten, sulfites or other ingredients known to cause sensitivities in some people, for example, glutamates).”
The FDA said temporary substitution of certain oils, such as canola for sunflower, may be appropriate without a label change because they contain similar types of fats. And with flour in short supply, unbleached flour can be substituted for bleached flour without a label change. Manufacturers now have the flexibility to substitute spices or vegetables without alerting consumers because of these new guidelines.
And for vending machines, providing calorie information, although encouraged, is no longer required. The guidance provides temporary flexibility to the vending machine industry regarding vending machine labeling requirements during the public health emergency. For example, the FDA will provide flexibility should vending machine operators experience difficulties in replacing stock, necessitating product substitutions using products that lack front of package calorie information.
The temporary policy will remain in effect for the duration of the pandemic. However, given that the food and agricultural sector may need additional time to bring supply chains back to regular order, the FDA will consider whether an extension is warranted, even after the termination of the public health emergency.