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Questions about new, voluntary food nutrition labels

October 19, 2011

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Spartan brand frozen sliced strawberries featuring a 'Facts Up Front' nutrition label. (PRNewsFoto/Spartan Stores, Jane Atwell)

Food has been a … well, hot item for business writers this year, between recalls and price hikes and production problems caused by wild weather and other disruptions.

Here’s one more serving of food business for you:  The new “Facts Up Front” voluntary labeling scheme becoming more prevalent on supermarket shelves.

The time peg:  On Thursday (Oct. 20) the Institute of Medicine is releasing a study that, from the sound of this media advisory: Front-of-Package Symbols and Systems: IOM Phase 2 Report, will critique the proliferation of nutritional labels and explain the effect on consumers. The study is the second part of a report requested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration; here’s a look at Phase I, released about a year ago, which appears to have recommended that calorie counts and per-serving information be conveyed in ordinary household measurements.

The report, “Front-of-package nutrition rating systems and symbols: Phase II Report” is available Wednesday on an embargoed basis; check the Institute of Medicine media room web page for details.

Back to “Facts Up Front,” check out the link to the website to read about the history of the program, which is sponsored by industry groups. (One fun benefit to pursuing stories like this is the entree to interesting niche trade and industry organizations, like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the International Food Information Council; I love to poke around such groups’ websites for further story ideas.)

The notion appears to be an effort to stay out front of critics, regulators and lawmakers who blame food makes for obesity and other consumption-related health problems that plague Americans.  It’s not without controversy; the New England Journal of Medicine in January critiqued an early version of the program in an opinion piece entitled “Front-of-package nutrition labeling: An abuse of trust by the food industry?”   One of the arguments is that the plethora of symbols is confusing to consumers who look at a package for only a “few seconds” and that food makers can manipulate nutrients, making junky food sound healthy with the addition of vitamins.

New food nutrition key
This nutrition key is designed to be clearer and easy to read.

It’s an interesting story to pursue if you have any medium or large-ish food making companies near you.  Are they going to add the new labeling system, and what’s the reasoning behind their decision?

The business angle that really interests me here is the packaging process — clearly labels, bags, boxes and other items had to be redesigned — or will be.  If you can catch a company early in the process, you could spin a readable and informative story out of the trial-and-error of creating a new and appealing label that also tells people their favorite snack contains a pound or two of sodium.  What a dilemma and challenge for food makers, designers and others in the chain.

Try resources like Packaging Digest, a trade magazine, for further insight.  And nose around your area colleges and universities; some actually offer courses and degrees in the art and science of packaging.  What a quirky careers story that would be, or a green business story, or technology — it fits a lot of beats.

It’s also a good consumer story — as companies like private-label Spartan brand roll out new packaging, talk with dieticians and others about the caveats.  (And ask about consumer responsibility, too — it seems to me that people genuinely concerned about food health owe more than a “few seconds” to a purchasing decision. )

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