Here’s How the FDA Plans to Update Food Labeling Mandates

Here’s How the FDA Plans to Update Food Labeling Mandates

There may be changes coming to food labelling mandates in the US, but the burden of healthy choices is still ultimately placed on consumers.

Last month, the Biden administration announced plans to update food labeling mandates to help consumers make healthier choices and better understand the nutrition of the products they buy. A standardized, front-of-package (FOP) food labeling system could be beneficial in a nation where over 40 percent of the population is obese, so why are food and beverage companies are pushing back?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tasked with researching and developing the FOP labeling system, the White House announced in a statement ahead of the Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. The move is to “help consumers, particularly those with lower nutrition literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern,” the White House stated.

The FOP food labeling mandate may come in the form of star ratings or traffic light schemes, for example, the White House’s strategy plan noted. FOP labels don’t replace the already-existing, longer nutrition facts consumers can find on the back of products. However, they highlight key information to make it easier to identify healthier foods.

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In addition to its push for a standardized FOP labeling system, the White House said the FDA will propose updating nutrition standards needed for companies to claim their products as “healthy.” The move is meant to highlight the nutrition community’s greater emphasis on the risk of added sugars.

Current food and beverage industry rules mandate that nutrition facts be printed on the back of a food or beverage package. The nutrition label was last updated in 2016, after more than 20 years, to make changes such as boldfacing calorie numbers and disclosing added sugar amounts. However, food and beverage companies want the placement of such nutrition information to stay voluntary. 

Industry leaders have already devised a voluntary label called Facts Up Front, which many brands including Kellogg’s and The Coca-Cola Company already use. The system allows companies to place nutrient amounts for calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugars and other nutrients on the front of food packaging. Food and beverage companies argue the voluntary program should be enough.

Not to mention, new food labeling mandates could further drive up consumer prices at a time of inflation. Forcing companies to comply with new food labeling mandates would impose costs as food prices are already soaring. Grocery costs jumped 13 percent in September from a year ago, according to last week’s data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A mandate from the FDA could also face legal challenges from companies. Companies could analyze the legal ramifications of such a change, including whether the agency had the authority to force it. As it writes the new food labeling mandate, the FDA must consider potential free-speech challenges. Food companies have used the First Amendment to oppose forced disclosures in the past and such an argument could be evoked if the FDA requires a certain type of labeling. 

While the FDA has yet to form a concrete plan for FOP labeling, the agency plans to broaden its research on the topic, look at other countries’ systems and convene focus groups to gauge how consumers feel about the labels, despite the push back from food and beverage companies.