Updated: Feb 2012. Original version published in November 2008.
In the early 13th century, the king of England proclaimed the first food regulatory law, the Assize of Bread, which prohibited bakers from mixing ground peas and beans into bread dough. Ever since, it has been a cat and mouse game between the food industry and the public (fast forward to China 2008 – cheap poisonous melamine in milk powder). In the US, food regulation dates back to early colonial times. Here is a brief overview of the last 150 years of government and industry food regulation:
1862 President Lincoln launches the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry, the predecessor of the Food and Drug Administration.
1906 The original Food and Drugs Act is passed. It prohibits interstate commerce in mis-branded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs.
1906 In the aftermath of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, which detailed the horrendous sanitary and working conditions in the meatpacking industry, the Meat Inspection Act is passed.
1924 The Supreme Court rules that the Food and Drugs Act condemns every statement, design, or device on a product’s label that may mislead or deceive, even if technically true.
1938 A revised and expanded Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938 is passed. Highlights include: safe tolerances to be set for unavoidable poisonous substances, standards of identity, quality, and fill-of-container to be set for foods, and authorization of factory inspections.
1939 First Food Standards issued (for canned tomatoes, tomato purée, and tomato paste).
1949 FDA publishes guidance to industry for the first time, called “Procedures for the Appraisal of the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food,” (aka the “black book”)
1950 Oleomargarine Act requires prominent labeling of colored oleomargarine, to distinguish it from butter. (Yes, swindlers tried to sell folks cheap margarine in the guise of butter.)
1958 Food Additives Amendment enacted, requiring manufacturers of new food additives to establish safety. Going forward, manufacturers were required to declare all additives in a product.
1958 FDA publishes the first list of food substances generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
1962 President Kennedy proclaims the Consumer Bill of Rights. Included are the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard.
1965 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, including food.
1971 Artificial sweetener saccharin, included in FDA’s original GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list, is removed from the list pending new scientific study.
1973 California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is formed. Begins with 54 farmers mutually certifying each other’s adherence to its own published, publicly available standards for defining organic produce.
1977 Bowing to industry pressure, the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act is passed by Congress to stop the FDA from banning the chemical sweetener. The act does require a label warning that saccharin has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
1980 Infant Formula Act establishes special FDA controls to ensure necessary nutritional content and safety.
1980 The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC) publishes the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines are to be updated every 5 years. In 1980 there were 7 relatively simple guidelines. In the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, there were 41 recommendations in a 71 page booklet!!!
1982 FDA publishes first “red book” (successor to 1949 “black book”), officially known as “Toxicological Principles for the Safety Assessment of Direct Food Additives and Color Additives Used in Food”.
1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) is passed. It requires all packaged foods to bear nutrition labeling and all health claims for foods to be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. As a concession to food manufacturers, the FDA authorizes some health claims for foods. The food ingredient panel, serving sizes, and terms such as “low fat” and “light” are standardized. This is pretty much the nutrition label as we know it today.
1991 Nutrition facts, basic per-serving nutritional information, are required on foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Food labels are to list the most important nutrients in an easy-to-follow format.
1995 Saccharin Notice Repeal Act repeals the saccharin notice requirements of 1977. People can get their saccharin without having to read about its risks.
1995 American Heart Association initiates a food certification program including AHA’s Heart Check Symbol to appear on certain foods. Criteria is simple – low in saturated fat and cholesterol for healthy people over age 2. Oh and also, a certification payment to AHA by the food manufacturer. Now you know why sugary cereal is Heart Checked.
1998 Transfair, the US Fair Trade organization is established, with a mission “to build a more equitable and sustainable model of international trade that benefits producers, consumers, industry and the earth”.
2002 The 2002 Farm Bill requires retailers provide country-of-origin (COOL) labeling for fresh beef, pork, and lamb. After repeated debilitation and stakeholder pressures, the law would finally go into effect only 6 years later, on Oct 1, 2008, and even then with many loopholes.
2002 The National Organic Program (NOP), enacted. It restricts the use of the term “organic” to certified organic producers. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
2003 Announcement made that FDA will require food labels to include trans fat content. Labeling went into effect in 2006.
2003 The FDA announced plans to permit the manufacturers of food products sold in the United States to make health claims on food labels which are supported by less than conclusive evidence. From “significant scientific consensus” before a claim can be made, industry can now rely on “Some scientific evidence” or “Very limited and preliminary scientific research” to make a health claim. Opponents criticize it as opening the door to ill-founded claims. Advocates believe it will make more information available to the public.
2004 Passage of the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Requires labeling of any food that contains one or more of: peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat.
2004 PepsiCo launches Smartspot – designating the “more nutritious” of its products with an easy to spot symbol on the front of package. Baked Doritos in. Fried Doritos out.
2005 Kraft launches Sensible Solutions, a similar initiative for its gamut of products including sugar-free Jello, vitamin water, and Nabisco toasted chips.
2005 President’s Choice launches Blue Menu to designate its healthier products.
2006 Hannaford Brothers Supermarket Chain launches Guiding Stars intended to help customers choose healthy foods. Foods are ranked 0 to 3 stars, with three stars awarded to most nutritious foods. Only 20% of the supermarket stocked items are starred, but sales of these items increase by several percentage points.
Sept 2008 NuVal announced – The nutritional value (NuVal) System scores food on a scale of 1 to 100. The higher the NuVal Score, the higher the nutrition of a food product. The score is based on a complex and *top secret* Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI) that takes into account 30 different nutrients in food. [update: read review]
Oct 2007 Kellogg’s Launches Nutrition at a Glance based on the European Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system. Front of Package information includes daily percentage values for 6 nutrients: calories, total fat, sodium, sugars, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
Oct 2008 Mars International launches GDA labeling of its foods and snacks in the US.
Oct 2008 Smart Choices launched – a pan industry effort to promote a standardized benchmark for front of package consumer information. Initial supporters include General Mills, Con-Agra, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever. [update: read review]
January 2009 Healthy Ideas launched at Giant Foods and Stop & Shop supermarkets. Around 10% of the items qualify for this benchmark, developed by the grocers’ nutrition experts and based on FDA and USDA guidelines.
January 2009 Sara Lee introduces Nutritional Spotlight front of package labels for bread, bun, and bagel products. This move is in contrast to an industry wide attempt by manufacturers to create a unified Smart Choice label. This label is similar to Mars’ and Kelloggs’ recent efforts.
January 2009 SuperValu introduces nutritionIQ shelf signage at its Albertsons stores. The color-coded, easy-to-spot shelf tags, or cards, are supposed to aid shoppers in choosing low fat, high fiber and other good foods.
January 2009 Regional Grocery Chain, United Supermarkets, Introduces TAG Nutrition Labeling Program. Five color coded shelf labels point to Heart Healthy/Diabetes Management, Gluten-Free, Organic, Lean/Low-Fat for Meat and Dairy and Sugar-Free/Reduced Sugar products.
June 2009- SuperValu introduces Healthy Elements program for its independent retail partners.
Summer 2009 – Smart Choices launches formally with several hundreds of products labeled with the green check mark. Froot Loops becomes the poster child for everything wrong with an industry backed nutrition rating system.
October 2009 – The FDA sends a “Dear Manufacturer” letter to boards of the Smart Choices Program and other Front of Pack nutrition rating systems, stating its concern with the potential to mislead consumers. A week later the Smart Choices program suspends itself.
January 2010 – Whole Foods Adopts ANDI Rating System – a new rating system for foods. There wasn’t too much follow-up to this pilot and it seems to have fizzled away.
October 2010 – The Institute of Medicine recommends only 4 nutrients be considered when preparing front of pack labels: Calories, Saturated Fat, Trans-Fat and Sodium.
December 2010 – The USDA requires cuts of meat to display nutrition as well, starting in January 2012.
January 2011 – The Grocery Manufacturers Association announces Nutrition Keys, a new front-of-pack labeling system, just months before the FDA is to issue its guidance to industry on the matter. Preemption anyone?
February 2011 – Safeway announces Simple Nutrition shelf tags, boasting 22 colorful encouragements for people to buy more, not less foods.
September 2011 – The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association renames Nutrition Keys (See January 2011) as Facts Up Front, allocating a $50 million budget to promote this initiative and preempt any regulatory ruling on the matter.
February 2012 – Wal-Mart Launches it’s “Great for you” Seal of Approval. The standards are the most conservative to be seen from the food industry so far.
What’s next for food labels? Consumers interest groups will continue to demand more visibility and more information from manufacturers. More data will become available, but translating the wealth of information to a decision at the supermarket shelf will not necessarily become easier for consumers. Programs such as Guiding Stars and NuVal may help consumers make better decisions, but with the FDA’s renewed interest and vigor, perhaps we shall see a uniform, standardized format on all products in the not too distant future.
Visionaries see a day where each ingredient of every product on a shelf can be connected directly to the farm, factory, and other stakeholders involved in its processing. Now how do you fit all that information on a pack of gum?
Sources: FDA, USDA, AHA, company and organization websites