Food

Why Is Trump Trying to Kill Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling?

Prohibiting warning labels would be a huge win for the food industry and a big loss for consumers.

Photo Credit: Korta/Shutterstock

President Donald Trump's trade negotiators are aiming at an improbable target in talks over the future of NAFTA: front-of-package nutrition labeling. According to the New York Times, American trade officials are trying to include in the agreement among Canada, the United States and Mexico a prohibition of any warning symbol that "inappropriately denotes that a hazard exists from consumption of the food or nonalcoholic beverages."

That would be a huge win for the food industry and a big loss for consumers who care about what they eat.

Twenty-five years ago, American shoppers welcomed what were then the best food labels in the world. Beginning May 8, 1993, the now-iconic Nutrition Facts label was required on almost every packaged food. For the first time, labels provided clear information about how much of major nutrients were in foods, as well as how those amounts fit into a healthy daily diet. Those labels quickly became invaluable to millions of consumers who were watching their calories, sodium or saturated fat.

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While the new labels were groundbreaking with respect to nutrients, they are complicated and neither revolutionized eating habits nor spurred many manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their foods. (One exception: adding “trans fat” to labels in 2006 did spur companies to switch to healthier oils.)

To see what is probably the best, most effective nutrition labeling yet developed, one needs to go to Chile. Faced with soaring rates of obesity—almost two-thirds of Chileans are overweight or obese—and soaring health-care costs, the government tested different label formats, fought off intense industry lobbying and litigation and introduced innovative labels.

Chile requires eye-catching stopsign-shaped logos on the fronts of packaged foods that contain excessive levels of the most problematic nutrients, the ones that contribute to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and tooth decay. The warning notices say (in Spanish) “High in Sugar,” “High in Calories,” “High in Saturated Fat,” and “High in Salt.” If a food is high in more than one nutrient, it must display more than one notice.

Chile then extended the impact of its nutrition labels by using them as the basis for regulating food advertising aimed at children. If a food bears a stopsign logo, it cannot be advertised to children under 14; it also can’t be sold in schools. In addition, junk foods intended for children are no longer permitted to have cartoon characters and other "child-bait” on labels.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers hate Chile's labeling scheme—because consumers can understand it! But consumers love it, and health officials around the world are exploring variations on the theme.

Ecuador, where half the population is overweight or obese, requires red "high in" labels for sugar, fat and sodium, but allows companies to also indicate if a food is low (green) or medium (yellow) in those nutrients and allows labels to be printed on the backs of packages. Peru soon will require red, black and white stop signs on foods high in sodium, sugar, saturated fat or trans fat, along with a statement inside a box: "AVOID EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION." Notwithstanding intense industry opposition, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia are also considering new nutrition labels.

Outside of South America, Israel will require bright red front-of-package labels on unhealthy food in two years.  And Canada has asked consumers to vote for one of four different “high in” symbols.

The biggest benefit of "interpretative" front-of-package nutrition labels is likely to come from the reformulation of foods. In Ecuador, health minister Margarita Guevara said that the labels have spurred as many as 40 percent of manufacturers to lower the levels of salt, fat or sugar in some of their products. Chile's health minister, Carmen Castillo, said that manufacturers rushed to reformulate as many as 25 percent of processed foods before the law went into effect, saying that that should yield "a tremendous impact on public health."

Regrettably for Americans' health, as the rest of the world is racing forward with modern food labeling, the United States is standing still. In 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to mandate consumer-friendly front-of-package labels. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommended a mandatory system that disclosed the calorie content and awarded up to three nutrition "points" for having safe levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. But the report is just collecting dust.

FDA commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, has signaled an interest in using "nutritional information as a way to prevent disease and death." He would do well to read the IOM report, oppose the USTR's initiative and emulate what our neighbors to the north and south are doing. And he could tell President Trump to keep his trade negotiators away from front-of-package nutrition labeling.

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Michael F. Jacobson is co-founder and senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.