The FDA announced in June that it will begin mandating American food companies to oversee the removal of partially-hydrogenated oils (PHOs) from their products. Food manufacturers will have 3 years to remove PHO's (Partially Hydrogenated Oils) from their foods. As a major source of artificial trans fats, the presence of PHOs in processed foods has been the source of a decades-long debate regarding whether or not they meet the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation. Food manufacturers have the option to petition the FDA for approval of certain usage of PHO's. Approval must be granted, otherwise all PHO's must be removed by the end of the 3 year period.
The FDA’s 2006 mandate to make national food labels more transparent spurred a national conversation about the outright ban of PHOs and trans fats. The FDA originally announced their plan to ban trans fats in November, 2013. This most recent announcement takes a definitive stance on the issue, and provides American food manufacturers with a three-year grace period to adjust their ingredients and submit any potential alternatives to the FDA for testing and compliance.
LDL: A Smoking Gun
A central component of the FDA’s case rests in the findings of the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM), which connected the consumption of PHOs with elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream, which elevates the risk of coronary heart disease. A statement released by the Institute concluded, “transfat provides no known health benefit and that there is no safe level of consumption of artificial trans fat. Additionally, the IOM recommends that consumption of trans fat should be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet.”
From Transparent Food Labeling to an Outright Ban
In the constant battle between government regulators, public policy advocates, and the food manufacturing industry, many advocates speak to the efficacy of the decision, citing the decline of trans fat intake among American consumers from 4.6 daily grams in 2003 to roughly 1 gram per diem in 2012.
A Victory for Public Health, A Setback for the Private Sector
“While consumption of potentially harmful artificial trans fat has declined over the last two decades in the United States, current intake remains a significant public health concern,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The FDA’s action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of transfat.” Hamburg elaborated that further reduction of trans fats in American diets could reduce heart attacks nationwide by up to 20,000 and preventable deaths from heart disease by up to 7,000 per annum.
While many in the public health sphere view the new regulations as a landmark victory in the public health sector, the American food manufacturing industry will not likely view the measure as kindly. For them, the new requirements mean untold dollars that must be spent in research and development, as well as in marketing and repackaging for certain products.
The FDA announced today a one-year deferment for restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” to adapt to the stipulations of the 2014 menu labeling rules. Originally intended to be in effect and observed nationwide by the end of 2015, the FDA extended the deadline to December 2016, citing the time required to train staff, implement standard operating protocol, develop proper nutrition labeling software, and update menus both online and at brick-and-mortar-based establishments. The new guidelines are intended to apply to everything from professional sports venue concession stands to grocery stores, and in the face of significant industry anticipation the government has struggled to produce a comprehensive draft guidance document.
Corporate Interests vs. Public Policy
The labeling rule only applies to “covered establishments,” or restaurants and retail food companies numbering more than 20 in total locations. Given the size of these organizations, the FDA extended the grace period under significant pressure from the American corporate restaurant and food retail communities via channels in Congress. In response to the announcement, the food retail lobby Food Marketing Institute (FMI) issued a press release celebrating the decision, adding that “...FMI will continue to work with both FDA and Congress to address business challenges with implementing restaurant menu labeling in grocery stores.” The National Restaurant Association also released a statement in response, asserting that the group has “ ...long supported a nationwide, uniform menu-labeling standard for chain restaurants that provides flexibility for restaurants and preempts a patchwork of state and local laws...we continue to work with the agency to address issues of concern for the restaurant industry and ensure a smooth transition for restaurants and consumers alike.”
FDA Promises a Helping Hand
In addition to the extension of the grace period for the new protocols,the FDA pledged to “...provide training and technical assistance to covered businesses and the state, local, and tribal regulatory agencies that will likely take the lead in enforcement.” In the implementation of the new rules, the administration also promised to “work flexibly and collaboratively with individual companies making a good faith effort to comply with the law.” Furthermore,the agency contended within their economic analysis of the regulations’ impact that “...allowing adequate time for covered establishments to fully implement the final rule's requirements, as described in the requests, helps accomplish the primary objective of the final rule and is in the public interest.”
The Canadian federal government has cooked up something sweet for its citizens—especially for those concerned about what they’re eating.
A major proposed change to nutrition labels for packaged foods (based on feedback from over 10,000 surveyed Canadians) would see all sugars grouped together in a single measurement, allowing consumers to quickly determine the total sugar content (including added sugar) in every food and drink. The change would also include a recommendation from health regulators that consumers limit their sugar consumption to 100 grams per day. That’s equal to three cans of soda, or 16 sugar cubes (represented by the middle-sized bottle of Coca-Cola below):
In addition to this potentially historic change, here’s the full list of new features that would appear on Canadian nutrition labels. They would:
Regulate serving sizes to make them consistent and realistic.
Make it easier to find information on serving size and calories.
Add a footnote at the bottom of the nutrition facts table to explain how to use percent daily value (% DV).
Improve the labelling of sugars. A new % DV for sugars will tell Canadians whether a food has a little or a lot of sugars. In the list of ingredients, sugars will be grouped.
Make the ingredient list and information on allergens easier to find and read.
Identify food colours by their common name in the list of ingredients.
Allow the use of a new health claim: “A healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits may help reduce the risk of heart disease.”
To help visualize the proposed changes, here is a detailed diagram of how the new label would look:
Even for those who don’t live in Canada, this proposition could have far-reaching effects. Here are five likely outcomes:
1. U.S. companies may begin selling Canada-specific products
Based on the United States’ history with food regulation, it’s unlikely that our government will attempt to limit our sugar intake. But because many U.S. FMCG businesses sell in Canada, they will have to either modify their offerings or develop new Canada-only products that comply with the new label regulations. This could affect business structures, and bring healthier options to the market.
2. The U.S. will face pressure from food NGOs to follow suit
The idea of reducing sugar intake to 100g per day didn’t originate in Canada, but with the World Health Organization (WHO), which actually suggested an even lower daily intake for sugars.
The sensational documentary Supersize Me managed to convince McDonald's, one of the world’s largest food companies, to change its offerings. The fast food franchise started selling salads and offering healthier alternatives. It even eliminated its “Supersize” offering. Should Canada’s proposed regulations pass, similar pressure could hit the U.S. FCMG.
3. We will gain a better sense of Daily Values
Did you know that 5% of something is “a little” and that 15% or more is “a lot?”
While adding this disclaimer to nutritional labels may not be the most comprehensive solution, sometimes these small, helpful reminders resonate most strongly with consumers. Would people start avoiding foods with more than 15% fat or sugar? Probably not in significant numbers--but it would certainly help consumers begin to recognize the content of their meals more accurately.
4. More people will start reading the “Ingredients” list
Nutrition labels list ingredients with complex and confusing chemical names, similar ingredients aren’t necessarily grouped, and the text is small, making the types of food extremely difficult to read.
The new Canadian nutrition labels would fix these issues, which could prompt more people to read the lists carefully, and in turn lead to more nutrition-conscious consumers, and a healthier society.
5. There will be more transparency in net weight and serving size
The biggest change for Canadian consumers is that the proposed nutrition labelling system will be more transparent. Part of that transparency must include an explanation (or at least a set of standards) explaining how net weight and serving size are measured.
Amidst allegations of rampant, deliberate overcharging stemming from mislabeling on prepared foods products, Whole Foods Market took to the offensive against New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), claiming that the bureau's inspectors “have not provided evidence to back up their demands nor have they requested any additional information from us, but instead have taken this to the media to coerce us."
First reported in the New York Daily News, the Department’s claims drew regional (and ultimately national) attention after commissioner Julia Menin suggested that investigators within her department had potentially uncovered food labels featuring “the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers."
In documents made available to the public following its initial investigation, the DCA allegedly tested 80 different package types and found they all featured mislabeled weights, adding that 89 percent of the tested packages were incongruous with federal statutes for the maximum amount "that an individual package can deviate from the actual weight." Commissioner Menin continued, “"the overcharges were especially prevalent in packages that had been labeled with exactly the same weight when it would be practically impossible for all of the packages to weigh the same amount. These products included nuts and other snack products (flavored almonds, pecan panko and corn nuts), berries, vegetables, and seafood."
It remains unclear what effect the discovery may have had on consumer confidence in the company, as Whole Foods Markets’ stock continued to trade at $40.35/share in the days following the announcement (a fairly negligible drop of 0.86% in value entering the week). NBC’s widely-popular financial analyst Jim Cramer, of “Mad Money,” recently argued that the company’s largest basis for steady revenue was their prepared foods department, which provided restaurant-grade food at grocery-store prices. It would stand to reason that the latest allegations would undermine the very bedrock of that revenue stream.
Falsely labeling a prepared-foods package in New York State carries an initial fine of up to $950 with supplemental fines as high as $1,700 for each additional infraction. Given the volume of charges against them, Whole Foods Market could be facing a significant payout to New York State.
The Food and Drug Administration provides universal guidelines as to the methodology of scaling and advertising food weights, to wit: “Only the quantity of food in the container or package is stated in the net quantity statement. Do not include the weight of the container, or wrappers and packing materials. To determine the net weight, subtract the average weight of the empty container, lid and any wrappers and packing materials from the average weight of the container when filled with food.”
Fair and proper measuring of foods sold to consumers is of immense importance. In violating the FDA’s standards for presentation of food labels, food manufacturers and retailers fail to uphold their end of a vital relationship in the United States: that between consumers and commerce.
It will be at least another 3 years before information on proper handling and cooking is mandatory for tenderized beef products. The delayed is due to government agencies, including the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the White House Office of Management and Budget, not being able to come to an agreement before December 31st, 2014.
These new food labeling guidelines will address a growing concern over dangerous foodborne illness causing food pathogens that are produced in the processing and then pushed down into the meat as it is softened. And unless the meat is cooked thoroughly these pathogens could sicken the consumer.
According to the national Centers for Disease Control, mechanically tenderized beef caused at least five E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks between 2003 and 2009, causing 174 illnesses.
To better understand how the tenderizing process can push pathogens into the center of the meat, check out this video from Consumer Reports:
Failure to pass this new food labeling regulation this year has some consumer groups and even members of Congress frustrated.
In an interview with Food Safety News, Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America stated, “It’s extremely disappointing because consumers are going to be at risk from this product for much longer than they need to be. The delay was totally unnecessary.”
Even though Waldrop and other consumer advocacy groups will push President Obama to still implement these new labeling laws by 2016, it seems unlikely as the 2014 deadline has passed. Because labeling laws are implemented every 2 years, the earliest it will probably be effective is 2018.
Retailers have the option to voluntarily label their mechanically tenderized meat products. Costco has started labeling their blade tenderized meat, instructing consumers to cook to a core temperature of 160 degrees.