In August 2009, major U.S. food manufacturers—including Kellogg, Kraft, ConAgra, General Mills, Pepsico, Sun-Maid, and Unilever—implemented the “Smart Choices” nutrition labeling program. Spending more than $1.47 million in 2008 and 2009 to develop the system featuring a green check mark and logo on foods that meet certain nutritional standards, 14 processed foods giants developed the system to promote their own products as “healthy.” 1 Two months later, on October 23rd, the Smart Choices program announced that it would “voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the logo at this time by either new or currently enrolled companies.” What happened?
While the idea of putting a label on the front of the package to guide consumers in making healthy choices holds much appeal, food researchers and media critics were outraged by the standards used. “Smart Choices Foods: Dumb as They Look?” asked a headline in Forbes magazine. When Kellogg gave its sugar-dense Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies the Smart Choice check (because of the vitamins they added and the milk children poured in), Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health told the New York Times, “These are horrible choices.” Awarding checks to these products, he explained, is “a blatant failure of this system and it makes it, I’m afraid, not credible.”
While media and scientific criticism of the Smart Choices program may have made the food industry uncomfortable, it was two government agencies that sent the industry-funded architects of Smart Choices back to the drawing board. On October 15th Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced an investigation into “a potentially misleading national food label program that deems mayonnaise, sugar-laden cereals and other nutritionally suspect foods ‘Smart Choices.’’’
Blumenthal noted that, “These so-called Smart Choices seem nutritionally suspect—and the label potentially misleading… Our investigation asks what objective scientific standards, research or factual evidence justify labeling such products as ’smart.’ … Busy moms and dads deserve truth in labeling—particularly when their children‘s health is at stake.”
About a week after Blumenthal’s announcement, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency released a letter warning that Smart Choices may actually do more harm than good. They noted that their research suggested that Smart Choices, as implemented, may mislead customers about the health benefits of certain foods and may make consumers less likely to read the detailed nutrition facts panel. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters that “There are products that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50 percent sugar.” 2 In the cautionary letter, the FDA affirmed its position that, “both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading.” 3 Two days later, Smart Choices’ suspended operations and declared it welcomed the “opportunity to collaborate on front-of-package labeling with the FDA.” 4
Do health advocates support a unified Front of Package (FOP) labeling systems?
While food advocates and government officials rejected the particulars of Smart Choices, many of these critics, most notably the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), have long argued for an easy-to-use symbol to supplement the nutrition facts panel. In fact, CSPI submitted a petition to the FDA in November 2006 arguing for a simplified uniform national program. In this petition, they describe the inconsistent, confusing and misleading systems have been implemented by various corporations to promote their own products. For example, the petition by CSPI notes that:
- Pepsi Co’s “Smart Spot” symbol has been applied to their Munchies Kid Mix, a snack mix that includes Cap’n Crunch cereal and Cheetos and candy-coated chocolate
- General Mills has a “Goodness Corner” symbol that has been applied to its Chocolate Lucky Charms
- Kraft’s “Sensible Solution” program has been applied to several high-fat cheeses, salty hot dogs, and Nabisco Strawberry Newtons
- Kellogg uses misleading “Best to You” banners to “draw attention to a product’s more healthful attributes” while overlooking less healthful characteristics. For example, one banner advertises that the product contains “iron” and “energy” while overlooking excessive sugar content
- the dairy industry allows a “3-A-Day” symbol on its products regardless of fat content
- the American Heart Association’s “heart check” does not consider trans fats or refined sugars
- Unilever’s “Eat Smart” allows for its extremely salty products to earn this label
Next steps: a nutritionally sound Front of Package (FOP) labeling system
Had it been properly designed and implemented, the Smart Choices program could have created a more unified and less confusing system for consumers. Instead, the food industry paid for a rating system that would not force it to make changes that might jeopardize profitability. CSPI Director Michael Jacobson believed the corporations participating in Smart Choices were hoping to avoid federal regulation of Front-of-Package labeling by showing the FDA that they were capable of developing a system on their own. 5, 6 He told the New York Times, “It clearly blew up in their faces. And the ironic thing is, their device for pre-empting government involvement actually seems to have stimulated government involvement.” 6 In its October 21st letter, the FDA promises to devise rules for FOP labeling that American consumers can trust. 3
So what are the lessons from the temporary demise of Smart Choices? First, active public oversight and monitoring can yield action. The threat of investigations by the Connecticut Attorney General and perhaps other State Attorneys General and the FDA’s cautionary letter clearly got the attention of the food industry, which feared bad publicity or possible legal action that could damage their reputation in a very tough economy. Second, the rating system established by the industry-funded Smart Choices program clearly does not meet most reasonable professional nutrition standards—one more example of industry self-regulation failing to safeguard public health. (For more on this, see Voluntary Guidelines vs. Public Oversight: Finding the right strategies to reduce harmful corporate practices) Finally, the Smart Choices story shows that with a new administration in Washington, advocates and state officials can hope for at least some level of support for their efforts from federal regulators, a dramatic change from a year ago.
On the other hand, it may be easier to stop a bad program like Smart Choices than to start an effective front-of-package labeling system. The decisions the FDA makes in the coming months will show whether the agency is willing to lead the fight for a labeling system that in fact promotes health. As FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg told reporters, “There‘s a growing proliferation of forms and symbols, check marks, numerical ratings, stars, heart icons and the like… There‘s truly a cacophony of approaches, not unlike the tower of Babel.” Whether the FDA can quiet that cacophony by requiring the food industry to speak in a language that all Americans can understand and use to make healthier food choices remains to be seen.
Lauren Evans is a student in the Doctor of Public Health program at City University of New York.
1 Ruiz R. Smart Choices Foods: Dumb as They Look? Processed-foods giants spent more than $1 million to create nutritional guidelines for a labeling system that favors their own products. Forbes.com. September 17, 2009. Available at http://www.forbes.com/2009/09/17/smart-choices-labels-lifestyle-health-foods.html. Accessed November 22, 2009.
4 FDA. Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling. October 2009. Available at http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/
GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/ucm187208.htm. Accessed November 22, 2009.
5 Press Release from Smart Choices Program. Smart Choices Program™ Postpones Active Operations: Group Welcomes Opportunity to Collaborate on Front-of-package Labeling with the FDA. October 23, 2009. Available at http://www.smartchoicesprogram.com/pr_091023_operations.html. Accessed November 22, 2009.