front of Chex cereal boxI learned on Marion Nestle’s blog that the Food and Drug Administration has written a “Dear Industry” letter that says it will create standards for front of package (FOP) labeling.

If you remember last month, I wrote about the Smart Choices program that puts a green checkmark on packaged foods that are supposed to be good nutritional choices. These checkmarks have ended up on products like Froot Loops and Lunchables.

Here’s one of the thoughts I had when read that the Smart Choices program wants to make it simple for consumers.

“Simple, front-of-pack nutrition guidance” – I’ve said it before. A box has six sides. To really figure out what’s in a food and whether it’s something you want to feed yourself and your family, you need to look at all sides of the box. Don’t let someone else do your thinking for you.

And here is one of the FDA’s points in their letter.

FDA's research has found that with FOP labeling, people are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts label on the information panel of foods (usually, the back or side of the package). It is thus essential that both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading.

I’m not surprised that the FDA found that people are less likely to check the back of the box if there is some sort of nutritional labeling on the front. But companies pay for FOP labeling, and whenever money is exchanged, it becomes harder to trust in impartiality.

It’s not just the Smart Choices program that is being investigated by the FDA. The Guiding Stars program and the My Pyramid program have shown up in an FOP backgrounder document that gives examples of FOP programs that are being looked into.

According to a piece in The New York Times, FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg is concerned about so many different programs creating confusion.

“It is clear that at the present time this vast array of different approaches is adding confusion rather than clarity,” Dr. Hamburg said. “We believe we can offer important benefits in terms of developing the science- and nutrition-based criteria for the use of dietary guidance claims.”

It looks like the ultimate goal is for the FDA to create a set of standards that any FOP labeling will need to adhere to. It will be interesting to see what standards are set.

I have to wonder if any FOP labeling is even a good idea. According to the FDA’s own research, FOP labeling discourages people from looking at the back of the box. The front of the box may indicate that a product has whole grains, but it will most likely never indicate what chemicals those whole grains have been preserved with or what food dyes they have been colored with. Those are things that people should be making choices about, too, and need to turn to the back to learn about.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

FDA goes after front of package labeling
In a letter written to the food industry, the FDA lets it be known things are going to change.