Top of the News: Commentary
FOOD LABELING: THE FDA HAS THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS
Last summer, Health & Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan sat down with Food & Drug Administration brass to tackle a thorny regulatory issue. The question: Do current food labels allow consumers to make intelligent dietary decisions?
To find out, Sullivan played Joe Consumer. Supposing a food label listed nine grams of fat per serving, Sullivan tried to figure out whether that was a lot or a little. To make that call, Sullivan reasoned, he would need to be told the suggested daily maximum for fat, about 65 grams. But even that wouldn't be enough to figure out how those nine grams would fit into a daily diet, Sullivan concluded. For that, he would need a calculator. And he couldn't imagine busy shoppers whipping out calculators--much less knowing their daily fat targets. Says an FDA official: "We were all laughing--it was so ridiculous."
LOSE-LOSE. Not as ridiculous as what's going on now. Today, Sullivan and FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler are trying to issue a massive--yet quite sensible--set of new food-labeling rules. But objections from food lobbyists and Agriculture Secretary Edward R. Madigan, who argues that labels need less detailed information than what the FDA proposed, have prevented the badly needed rules from being issued by a congressionally mandated Nov. 8 deadline. The food fight has left President Bush with the very un-Presidential task of choosing whether FDA or USDA format labels should be slapped on some 500,000 products.
The flap is an embarrassment for the Administration and a disaster for the industry and consumers alike. Because of the delay, companies can't plan ahead. And ordinary folks won't get the dietary guidance they need. "This could turn out be one of the food regulation nightmares of all time," says former FDA counsel Peter Barton Hutt.
Too bad, because the FDA's proposals would bring order to the chaos in food-labeling. Juices would have to bear names reflecting their primary ingredient, so consumers would be spared buying "raspberry passion" beverages that taste suspiciously like apple juice. Also, companies would finally have uniform definitions of such terms as "low-fat" and "light."
At the same time, food manufacturers would be allowed to make more health claims for their products--for example, that fiber may help fight cancer. "It's critically important for business, government, and consumers for this matter to be resolved quickly," says food industry attorney Richard L. Frank.
What has derailed the more than 5,000 pages of regulations is the issue that sparked Sullivan's concern in the first place. To let consumers know what fat levels really mean, Sullivan and Kessler insist that labels include each food's percentages of suggested overall daily consumption of such things as fat, cholesterol, and sodium, based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet (illustration).
PUNT? But Madigan, pushed by the meat industry, counters that labels with the FDA's daily-consumption standards are too cluttered and too confusing. They also happen to make many meat products look bad. Madigan also ridicules the notion of a 2,000-calorie diet, noting that many men eat hundreds of calories more. As a result, he says, the labels need include only the number of calories from fat and an admonition to choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
Now what? Bush can either force Sullivan or Madigan to back down, or the Administration will punt to the Clinton team. Either way, litigation is nearly certain. "I'll be able to put my great-grandchildren through college on this," smirks an industry attorney.
There's plenty of blame to go around for this mess. But the bottom line is that the FDA's scheme is a good one. People might think twice about blithely scarfing down two hot dogs and two ounces of potato chips if the labels clearly state that such a modest snack provides 75% of the recommended daily intake of fat. And while it's true that some people need more than 2,000 calories a day, consumers can figure that out for themselves. You shouldn't need a doctorate and a calculator to figure out a food label. With the FDA's proposed rules, you don't.John Carey