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October 21, 2009

Red Light: Stop, Green Light: Eat

Reports are flowing in that, in response to Big Food's attempt to make Froot Loops a "Smart Choice," the FDA is fast-tracking its own efforts to set groundrules for front-of-packaging nutrition labels. This in itself is a big deal. Avoiding FDA entanglements was the entire point of large food companies coalescing around the "Smart Choices" label. The problem for them is that any real nutrition label might actually depress sales on some products. That is not an option, and so we are given, in Lake Wobegon style ("where all children are above average"), a "healthy" label for which just about every product, no matter how sweet or salty, could qualify.

If you're a Big Food exec, this is bad enough. But, according to the NYT, things just got much worse. Buried in their article on the FDA announcement is this nugget:

Speaking in a telephone call with reporters, Dr. Hamburg said that she expected package-front labels would be required to include information on saturated fat, salt, added sugar and calories.

Dr. Hamburg repeatedly mentioned a package-front labeling program in Britain that uses red, yellow or green dots -- like traffic signals -- to indicate the relative amounts of important ingredients.

She said that could provide a model for the F.D.A. as it sought to find the best way to provide information to American consumers.

Uh oh. The industry-despised "traffic signals" label. The UK's version looks like this:

There are two problems with them from the industry's perspective. The first, of course, is that there will be red lights!! The supermarket will suddenly be filled with product after product covered in nasty little red dots that the government essentially says you shouldn't buy (except once in a while). Sales of products heavy in saturated fat, salt and added sugar will likely, dare I say it, fall.

The second problem is that, according to a study from Australia, where the system is also in place, traffic signal labels are really really effective...

READ THE REST OF THIS POST AT GRIST.ORG

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