Smart Choices food labels halted on FDA warning

A shopper looks at grocery items at a Target store in Los Angeles, California August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An industry-funded food labeling program was halted on Friday just days after U.S. officials warned they were investigating if nutrition claims on the front of packages were misleading.

The Smart Choices Program said it would “voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the logo at this time by either new or currently enrolled companies.”

Consumer advocates and nutritionists have complained that some sugary cereals and high-salt foods display a “Smart Choices” checkmark on their packages to promote the products as healthy.

Participating companies include: Kellogg Co, Kraft Foods Inc and General Mills Inc, Unilever PLC, PepsiCo Inc’s Quaker Foods and ConAgra Foods Inc. Some foods carrying the Smart Choices seal include: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Baked Cheese Crackers, Country Crock spread and Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies breakfast cereals.

The Food and Drug Administration announced on Tuesday it was examining nutrition claims on the front of packages and would take action against false or misleading claims.

The agency also said it was developing a proposed regulation to define criteria for front-of-package claims and exploring if consumers would benefit from a single symbol to give a quick and accurate idea of nutritional content.

Mike Hughes, head of the Smart Choices program, said after the FDA announcement, “It is more appropriate to postpone active operations and channel our information and learnings to the agency to support their initiative.

“We continue to believe the Smart Choices Program is an important step in the right direction,” Hughes said in a statement, adding that “our nutrition criteria are based on sound, consensus science.”

General Mills, asked about the decision, referred questions to the Smart Choices Program. Representatives from all of the other companies mentioned in the article were not immediately available for comment.

Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang, Leslie Gevirtz