— OPINION —
Momentum for mandatory front-of-package nutrition labeling continues to grow as new organizations are joining the effort to encourage the Food and Drug Administration to develop labels that would call attention to high levels of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat in packaged, processed foods. And a new poll commissioned by CSPI finds strong public support for the proposal.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Public Health Association, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Reports are among 17 organizations that have filed a supportive comment with the FDA, which opened a regulatory docket in response to an August 2022 petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Association of State SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators, and the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists.
“We are dismayed that the United States has become one of the nations with the greatest need for, but scantest action on, such public health nutrition interventions,” the 17 organizations wrote. “The time has come for FDA to take bold action to improve our nation’s diet and health. Please prioritize this evidence-based policy and develop a mandatory front-of-package labeling system for the United States.”
The comment points out that the average American adult consumes 50 percent more sodium, 40 percent more added sugars, and 40 percent more saturated fat than recommended daily. Meanwhile, approximately 122 million U.S. adults have hypertension, more than 30 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, and 20 million U.S. adults have coronary artery disease. Each of these conditions is strongly linked to excess intake of added sugar, salt, or saturated fat, according to the groups.
The idea of front-of-package labeling received a major boost late last year, when the Biden administration endorsed it as part of its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. FDA is poised to begin quantitative research testing consumers’ reactions to various potential front-of-package labeling systems.
The FDA’s docket has received over 7,700 public comments, over 5,500 of which are posted as of today. The overwhelming majority of the posted comments support the petition. These supportive comments include submissions from academics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Separately, in a new comment filed to the docket Thursday, CSPI noted that, of all the comments on the public docket, only one opposes mandatory front-of-package labeling—the joint comment of the Consumer Brands Association (the trade association formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association) and the FMI-The Food Industry Association. That comment argues, among other things, that FDA may lack authority to implement front-of-package labeling.
But CSPI’s comment in response explains how Congress gave FDA broad authority over nutrition labeling generally when it passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act — the law that FDA used to create mandatory Nutrition Facts labels in the first place. Congress’s intent was made clear in the report language accompanying that act when it wrote “In order to present nutrition information in a manner that facilitates the public’s understanding, the Secretary may choose among a variety of options. … This could include the use of descriptive terms such as ‘high,’ ‘medium,’ and ‘low’ or the use of universal symbols to indicate desirable or undesirable levels of particular nutrients.” Thus, FDA has the authority to require interpretive front-of-package nutrient disclosures under the NLEA. Last month, CSPI commissioned a national survey to assess public support for a mandatory front-of-package nutrition labeling policy in the United States. The survey found high levels of support across demographic groups, with 75 percent of all consumers supporting the policy, including among Democrats (83 percent) Republicans (68 percent), and Independents (73 percent).
“It’s worth remembering that the food industry rabidly opposed Nutrition Facts labels when they were first proposed, variously claiming they would violate the First Amendment, confuse consumers, and be too expensive for the industry,” said CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie. “Industry arguments against nutrition labeling on packaged foods ring as hollow today as they did 35 years ago.”
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