Nutrition labels on the front of packages? Biden administration pushes for next steps

The Biden-Harris administration is pushing for a standardized, front-of-package food labeling system to help consumers make healthier choices and better understand the nutrition of the products they buy.

The Food and Drug Administration will research and propose developing the FOP labeling system, the White House announced Tuesday as part of a 44-page strategy plan – released ahead of Wednesday's White House 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 wrote.

The FOP labeling can come in the form of star ratings or traffic light schemes, for example, the strategy plan noted. FOP labels don't replace the already-existing, longer Nutrition Facts you can find on the back of products – but do they highlight key information to make it easier to identify healthier foods, advocates say.

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In addition to its push for a standardized FOP labeling system, the Biden-Harris administration said the FDA will propose updating nutrition standards needed for companies to claim their products as "healthy."

In a statement sent to USA TODAY Tuesday afternoon, the FDA maintained its "plans to help empower consumers by providing more informative labeling." The agency added that it plans to expand research into FOP labeling, including monitoring FOP labeling and its impact in other parts of the world.

"We recently completed a literature review on FOP labeling, which provided foundational research for a potential symbol to represent the 'healthy' claim," the FDA said. The agency is also "in the process of carrying out preliminary consumer focus group testing on potential FOP schemes that will better inform us about what consumers think about that type of labeling."

What does front-of-package labeling do?

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says FOP labeling has two purposes: To help individuals buy healthier foods and to serve as an incentive for companies to improve the nutrition of their products.

FOP food labeling in the U.S. is not new, Nestle notes, but a standardized system that clearly warns consumers "what's wrong with the product as well as what's right about it" would be. Other countries that have adopted this kind of system have seen positive impacts.

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"We already have front-of-package labeling, it's those little tiny boxes that... tell you on the front of the package and how much salt, sugar (and) fat there is relative to what you're supposed to be eating" Nestle told USA TODAY.

"It's sort of a repeat of what's on the (full Nutrition Facts label) and it's so obscure that nobody pays any attention to it. Which is why the food industry put it (there) – to head off front-of-package labeling that the FDA was considering... more than 10 years ago."

Success in other countries, uncertain future in the US

Nestle noted that previous research has found that FOP food labeling, particularly in countries that have put warnings on the front of unhealthy products, encourages consumers to buy healthier and avoid junk food.

After Chile implemented its Law of Food Labeling and Advertising in 2016, for example, a 2020 study found that FOP labeling led people to purchase almost 24% fewer sugary drinks over 18 months. More than one-third of Chileans also said the labels encouraged them to change their eating habits.

But there could be a lot of pushback in the U.S. food industry and political opposition, Nestle said – stressing that the timeline for developing a standardized FOP food labeling system is uncertain. Even if successful, the change could take years, she added.

The FDA said that their research and results of the current focus groups will help determine next steps.

"The clearest (FOP labeling) would be a traffic light – red, green, yellow... But the food industry is never going to allow red dots on its products," Nestle said. "It's hard to know where this is going to go. And it requires years and years... of FDA rule making. It's not something that's going to happen overnight."

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While Nestle supports FOP food labeling and underlines its benefits, she worries "the burden of healthy choices is still being placed on individuals." Other essential national policy steps could be marketing restrictions or implementing stricter regulations on the level of sugar and salt in products, for example, she said.

The Biden plan does promise the "FDA will issue revised voluntary sodium reduction targets to continually lower the amount of sodium in food" and "will begin assessing the evidence for potential voluntary added sugar targets," according to a press conference last night led by administration officials.

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The push of FOP food labeling is part of the Biden-Harris administration's efforts to "empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices" – which also includes expanding access to fruits and vegetables for recipients of the federal nutrition assistance program SNAP.

Other areas of action laid out in the White House's strategy plan include improving food affordability, expanding food security research and increase physical activity nationwide – all working towards President Joe Biden's goal to end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases in the U.S. by 2030.

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"This national strategy will serve as the playbook to meet this vital goal. It calls for a whole-of government and whole-of-America approach to addressing the challenges we face," Biden wrote in a letter attached to the strategy, adding that Wednesday's conference will be the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in over 50 years.

Contributing: Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden admin pushes for front-of-package food labels in health plan