November 20, 2013
As president of the United Natural Products Alliance, Loren Israelsen knows a thing or two about food labels. We chatted with him to gain insight on the recently proposed Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013, which calls for a definition of “natural,” “whole grain” and “healthy” on food products. The bill posits that food products should also contain a standard front-of-pack (FOP) labeling system. Because of manufacturer pushback, experts say the bill is likely to fail. However, it raises important questions about fragmented FOP labels such as Smart Choices, Facts Up Front and Guiding Stars. Here, Israelsen illuminates the bill’s importance and the repercussions of front-of-package labeling.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: If passed, what kind of industry resistance would a law like this elicit?
Loren Israelsen: This would create many questions without providing good answers—however, it raises a lot of good ideas. Though well-intended, at the moment, the bill is highly impractical to try and develop a working policy around. For example, we have to first figure out the non-GMO issue. That’s clearly the priority.
NFM: Studies show labeling on the front of a package helps consumers identify healthier products, but that such labels don’t necessarily influence consumer buying habits. How can this disconnect be remedied?
LI: I personally find front-of-package labeling to be a valuable and useful concept. But the packaged foods industry is highly resistant, and it will continue to be until businesses can figure out how to make the concept a useful asset. There needs to be a tipping point—whether that’s soaring obesity or illness levels—for FOP labeling to be widely adopted.
NFM: Is a national labeling system the best course of action to encourage people to eat better?
LI:Yes, front-of-pack labels must be standardized. Right now manufacturers, organizations and even retailers are creating their own labeling. But this is confusing. For FOP labeling to work, the colors, type font and methodology must be the same. Do this and we can change consumer buying patterns.
NFM: Should we have FOP labels at all? Why is the Nutritional Facts Panel insufficient?
LI:I’m attracted to FOP symbology, but I’m wary. Given how valuable this real estate is, I fear it will be set to the best and worse use. For example, if you have a high saturated fat product, why in the world would you want that on the front? The best remedy is better-educated consumers. The FOP is extremely critical space because it’s an entirely different process to pick up a product and turn it over to look at the ingredients on the back.
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