Legal Insights

What’s in my food? FDA is simplifying your nutrition labels

By: June 8, 2016

Nutrition fact labeling has been a hot button issue over the last several years, with a number of groups advocating for revised labeling standards that allow consumers to better understand what it is that they’re eating.  Most notably, First Lady Michelle Obama has led a push for better food labeling standards.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently reacted by proposing new rules for nutrition fact labeling that could change the way that the American public chooses what foods to eat.  The new rules attempt to make it easier for consumers to understand what they’re eating by increasing the font size of “calories,” “servings per container,” and “serving size.”  In addition, “calories” and “serving size” will now be shown in bold.  The goal is to simplify nutritional labeling and display the information in a format that is easier to understand, thereby helping consumers make better informed decisions.

An interesting change in labeling standards is contained in the new rules.  The FDA states that the law requires serving sizes to be based on what people are actually consuming and not what they should be consuming.  As an example, ice cream sizes have increased over the last couple of decades, and as a result, the serving sizes should increase as well.  Similarly, some beverages list more than one serving per container even though they are typically consumed in one sitting.  In such cases, nutrition facts will be required to be labeled as one serving.  In other cases, some items may be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.  In such cases, the manufacturers will be required to have dual columns that show the nutrition information on a “per serving” basis as well as on a “per package/per unit” basis, thereby allowing consumers to know how many calories and nutrients they’ll consume if they eat one serving versus how much they’ll consume if they eat the entire package.

The FDA has proposed that large manufacturers will have to comply with the changes by July 26, 2018, while smaller manufacturers will have an additional year to comply.  While large manufacturers would presumably have the means necessary to comply with the new rules, smaller manufacturers (whether located in Arizona or elsewhere) may need more time, which is why the FDA has proposed to allow them an additional year to comply.

In years past, various industry groups opposed new changes to the food labeling standards, but most now have a measured response to the new changes.  For instance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association – a trade group that represents many of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies – announced that they will work with the FDA as the changes go through the regulatory process.  Not surprisingly, however, some industry groups, such as the Sugar Association, remain disappointed with the new changes.

In addition to the FDA’s proposed changes to nutrition labeling, a new bill in Congress also aims to change the way we eat.  The Food Date Labeling Act was proposed recently by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME).  The Act would change the way expiration dates work.  Under the Act, a uniform national date labeling system will be established with the goal of reducing confusion, simplifying regulatory compliance for companies, and reducing food waste.  The date labeling system will clearly distinguish between foods that bear a label for peak quality and foods that bear a label for when they may be unsafe to consume.  By reducing the confusion surrounding expiration dates, the Act seeks to maintain food safety while simultaneously reducing food waste and its associated social and economic costs.

According to a press release by Congresswoman Pingree’s office, “the current dizzying array of date labels on food products…confuses consumers and contributes to 90% of Americans prematurely tossing perfectly safe food.”  The Act has received broad support from industry as well as food waste advocates.  For instance, Campbell Soup Company and Nestle USA both support the changes as do food waste advocates such as the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Food Recovery Network.

The Act would have broad implications to consumers, local businesses, and restaurants in Arizona.  For consumers, the Act is intended to reduce grocery bills by reducing food waste.  According to the National Resource Defense Council and the Ad Council, consumers account for more food waste than grocery stores and restaurants, and therefore, have the most to gain from new date labeling standards.  However, local businesses and restaurants also have much to gain.  By reducing food waste, such businesses should be able to lower their food costs.