UPDATE 3-US FDA probing nutrition claims on food packages

Tue Oct 20, 2009 5:58pm EDT

 * FDA looking at front-of-package claims
 * 'Egregious' examples will draw action-FDA chief
 * FDA developing regulations for front-of-package claims
 * Industry group says will work with FDA
 (Adds Kellogg response)
 By Lisa Richwine
 WASHINGTON, Oct 20 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators are
examining the growing number of nutrition claims found on the
front of food packages after complaints that they give a
misleading picture of their health benefits, officials said in
a warning to food companies on Tuesday.
 The Food and Drug Administration is trying to determine if
any claims violate federal food labeling rules and "will take
enforcement action against any egregious examples," FDA
Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters.
 FDA officials also are developing a proposed regulation to
define nutritional criteria for claims made on the front of
food packages, Hamburg said.
 The FDA is acting as companies increasingly add nutrition
claims to the front of packages to catch the attention of
hurried shoppers who might not read the detailed facts about a
food's content on the back, she added.
 "Some nutritionists have questioned whether this
information is more marketing-oriented than health-oriented,
and judging from some of the labels that we have seen, we think
this is a valid concern," Hamburg said.
 In a letter to food companies, the agency said it was
"currently analyzing (front-of-package) labels that appear to
be misleading."
 Asked to give examples of questionable claims, Hamburg said
some foods with almost 50 percent sugar were displaying a
"Smart Choices" checkmark. Other package fronts boast a high
percentage of the recommended daily vegetable intake but fail
to mention that the products contain 80 percent of the
suggested fat allowance, she said. She did not name specific
 With a wide variety of symbols and claims being used, the
FDA is exploring if consumers would benefit from a single
symbol for the front of packages to give a quick and accurate
idea of nutritional content, Hamburg said.
 Mike Hughes, chairman of the Smart Choices Program, said it
"complies with all U.S. laws and regulations" and "we believe
in the science behind" the program.
 "We look forward to the opportunity to participate in FDA's
initiatives," Hughes said in a statement.
 The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), a trade group
representing food makers, said it would work with the FDA to
determine what information was most useful to consumers.
 "Manufacturers have already introduced or reformulated over
10,000 products to reduce calories, sugar, sodium, fat and
trans fat or to enhance their nutritional profile, such as with
the addition of whole grains or minerals," GMA President Pamela
Bailey said in a statement.
 U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat, said she was "very
encouraged by FDA's commitment to proceed with enforcement
actions" against unauthorized claims.
 "Clearly something is wrong when foods such as Froot Loops
cereal, Cookie Crisp cereal, and Uncle Ben's Instant Rice are
designated as 'healthy' by these labeling systems," DeLauro
 Froot Loops is made by Kellogg Co (K.N). General Mills
(GIS.N) makes Cookie Crisp, and privately held Mars Inc makes
Uncle Ben's rice.
 A Kellogg spokeswoman referred to the statement from the
Smart Choices Program. Officials at General Mills and Mars did
not immediately respond to requests for comment.
 (Reporting by Lisa Richwine, editing by Matthew Lewis)