Nutrition info coming to fronts of food packages

Associated Press
This product image provided by the Grocery Manufactur-ers Association shows new "Nutrition Keys" labels, lower left, as they would appear on a box of cereal.

NEW YORK (AP) — Some of the nutrition information listed in government-mandated food labels will be repeated on package fronts under a new system that food makers and major grocers are introducing.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute on Monday announced the industry's voluntary new "Nutrition Keys," which will list calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars per serving. Manufacturers may choose to use only one or two of the figures in small, package-front icons, or all four.

The icons replace a program the industry launched and canceled in 2009 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said was misleading. It was called "Smart Choices" and included a green check mark on foods that met some nutrition requirements set by the industry.

Most U.S. food makers and sellers are backing "Nutrition Keys," which the industry is launching with a $50 million marketing campaign.

Campbell Soup Co. said in a statement that it plans to add the icons to "appropriately-sized packages" of beverages, baked snacks and meals this year and next.

Most food makers will add Nutrition Keys icons to most of their packaging by the end of 2011 but also keep the mandatory black-and-white nutrition labels on package backs. The new labeling system includes ways for food makers to name ingredients consumers should emphasize and those best to limit.

Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in a conference call with news organizations that the program is "totally consistent with the existing FDA and USDA regulations" and was developed because consumer research showed shoppers wanted the information.

Industry representatives said the new labels respond to a request First Lady Michelle Obama made last March in her effort to fight childhood obesity.

The labels met some criticism, however.

Nonprofit advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest said they could be confusing — and consumers are likely to ignore them.

"It's unfortunate the industry wouldn't adopt a more effective system or simply wait until the Food and Drug Administration developed a system that would be as useful to consumers as possible," the group said in a statement.

Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said in a statement issued by the university Monday that the new labels are a "sign" that the government must continue its regulatory effort.

"I see no reason the food industry could not have waited . except that the industry fears that government would suggest a system that reflects poorly on many of its products," Brownell said.

Food industry analyst Erin Swanson with the Wall Street research firm Morningstar praised the labels for making nutrition information more visible.

"Food companies have had a focus on improving the wellness profile of their portfolios," Swanson noted.

An FDA representative declined to comment.