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Dairy industry cautious about proposed nutrition symbols

By Lorraine Heller , 21-Nov-2007

The US dairy industry has called on the nation's regulator to keep any new nutrition symbol programs both voluntary and flexible for manufacturers.

The comments from the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) come in response to the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) consideration of a new labeling program similar to the UK's traffic light system.


The agency in September called for comments on the effectiveness and impacts of a proposed nutrient labeling system, in an effort to provide consumers with consistent information in place of the current proliferation of nutrient symbols and marks designed by individual companies, trade groups, or nutrition and health organizations.


However, IDFA - like the food industry group Grocery Manufacturer's Association (GMA) before it - has said that current information provided on labels is already consistent with national guidelines, and additional measures or restrictions are unnecessary.


IDFA said it believes that companies should be free to decide whether to use nutrition symbols based on their individual products, their labels and their customers.


"A mandatory system could have the unwanted effect of separating foods into 'good' and 'bad' groups, and could force costly label changes with no additional benefit to consumers," it said.


The group warned against employing a single symbol to summarize all nutritional characteristics of a food or beverage, saying it would be too simplistic and possibly misleading.


"Consumers with specific health concerns, such as hypertension, often look for a specific nutrient or set of nutrients to meet their needs, and a single 'good choice' nutrient symbol wouldn't provide enough information to make an informed decision."


But FDA maintains that the lack of consistency in the nutrition symbols currently used has ultimately raised the risk of confusing consumers more than helping them.


"The selected nutrients and the nutrient levels required for eligibility vary among the different symbol programs in use. With the increasingly widespread availability of these symbols from manufacturers, retailers, and third party organizations, it is possible that eligible food products could bear multiple nutrition symbols," said FDA.


The agency in September held a two-day meeting to gather comments from industry, health groups, advocacy organizations and medical experts on the use of a new labeling program.


It stressed during the hearing that the meeting was only a preliminary step in its consideration of a national labeling system. If this leads to the implementation of any new programs these would most likely remain voluntary, and are still several years down the line.


In a letter to FDA earlier this month, IDFA said that if a mandatory symbol system is implemented, manufacturers should be provided the support to understand how to revise their formulations in order to qualify for a higher rating.


It also called for the testing of any potential symbol program to ensure that the symbols are helping consumers and not unintentionally steering them away from certain foods.


To access IDFA's letter to FDA, click here .

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