G.M.A. keys in on nutrition

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — The Grocery Manufacturers Association on Jan. 24 unveiled Nutrition Keys, the group’s new voluntary front-of-pack labeling system. Endorsed by groups representing the largest food and beverage companies in the United States, the G.M.A. described the program as “the most significant modernization of food labels since the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.”

The G.M.A. said the program was crafted in response to a request from First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking before food manufacturers last year.

“We share First Lady Michelle Obama’s goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the G.M.A.

Under the program, calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content will be printed on the front of packages. The G.M.A. said the information is meant to appeal to busy consumers and will be presented in a “fact-based, simple and easy-to-use format.”

“The icon will inform consumers about how the key nutrients in each product fit into a balanced and healthy diet as part of the federal government’s daily dietary advice,” the G.M.A. said.

In addition to the core items, the Nutrition Keys icon on certain products will display information about “nutrients to encourage” but are under-consumed by the general population. Examples of such nutrients to encourage include potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.

To qualify for the nutrients to encourage logo, a product must have more than 10% of the daily value of the nutrient and meet the F.D.A. requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.

The program was approved by the G.M.A. board of directors and the Food Marketing Institute in a joint resolution at their Jan. 23 joint board meeting. Output from member companies accounts for the large majority of food and beverage products sold in local stores.

“Helping consumers make informed decisions is not just good business sense, it is the right thing to do,” said Gary Rodkin, chief executive officer of ConAgra Foods, Inc. and chairman of the G.M.A. board of directors. “Our industry has stepped up to the plate in a big way to help improve public health and combat obesity and this program is a very important step in the right direction.”

Companies may begin placing the icon on their products in 2011, and the rollout is expected to depend on seasonality and production schedules.

The program will be supported by an industry-funded consumer education campaign. Participating manufacturers and retailers initially will invest at least $50 million in an advertising, public relations and in-store marketing campaign aimed at those who serve as the primary shopper for their family, the G.M.A. said.

The group said its new icon and label changes adhere to Food and Drug Administration guidelines and regulations aimed at ensuring consumers receive consistent and reliable information.

On small packages, only a single icon may be used — calories.

“This is an option for food manufacturers, recognizing that small food packages may not have enough space to accommodate the four basic icons,” the G.M.A. said. “This labeling system will complement the Clear on Calories labeling system developed by the American Beverage Association.”

Development of the new program followed the jettisoning of an old front-of-package labeling system that drew unwelcome attention from the F.D.A. The agency in early 2010 sent warning letters about claims on the front of their packages.
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