one green planet
one green planet

In the United States, some food label practices need serious upheaval. Though we enjoy fairly open access to information in this country, food labels could still do a better job to aid busy consumers in making health-related choices about labeled foods. Meanwhile, other developed countries around the globe have some pretty bright ideas we could learn from here. Here’s what other countries are getting right – ideas we should really consider following, pronto, for the betterment of our own food labeling systems here in the U.S.

Sixty-Four Other Countries Label GMOs

That’s right –a whopping 64 countries have it together better than the U.S. in terms of the consumer’s right to know about the presence of genetically modified ingredients in foods. What’s worse is that we’re among one of the most developed nations in the world and we lack such labeling. As Just Label It states: “Unlike most other developed countries – such as 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and even China – the U.S. has no laws requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods.”

Label GMOs writes that countries labeling GMOs include more than 40 percent of the world’s population.  And why would we want to join much of the rest of the world in the labeling of GMOs? Label GMOs sums it up well: “The main reason we want them labeled is that we see enough independent data to suggest possible health risks. We don’t want to eat them but we can’t know which foods they are in if they aren’t labeled.  It’s a basic consumer right we are asking for- given the conflicting data and our mistrust in an industry that has been proven to hide negative findings, we have the right to know what we are buying and putting in our children’s mouths.”

Let’s get with it, U.S. – time to take a step in the name of transparency like much of the rest of the world has already done.

Many Countries Do a Better Job with Regulating Health Claims

Front-of-package health claims on U.S. food labels are, for many, quite confusing. While some have actual research backing, others are no more than marketing fluff (I’m talking to you, “natural” claims!). P.G.Williams, a researcher from the University of Wollongong, describes the biggest potential problem with food label claims: even if they mean very little, “consumers view a food as healthier if it carries a health claim and this ‘halo’ effect may discourage them from seeking further nutrition information.” But, if a health claim is more marketing than anything else, how is a consumer supposed to know the difference between them all? The short answer: it’s tough to know, unless you’ve done your research beforehand. But our own regulatory bodies, such as the FDA, could do more to help this situation.

We can look to other countries for guidance on how to improve our practices in the United States. First of all, we can consider that many of the claims authorized for use in the U.S. have been modified or banned in neighboring Canada:

Health Canada committed to undertaking a review of the 10 U.S. health claims that met the SSA standards and were authorized under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) at that time. Of these 10 NLEA claims, 5 have been authorized, with some modification of wording, through regulatory amendments; 2 have been recommended for approval, with some modification of wording, and have undergone public consultation; 2 were found not to be supported by updated science and will not be approved in Canada.”

Europe’s European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in 2009, released judgments on 523 health claims being used on products in its jurisdiction. According to the press regarding this study of health claims, “EFSA’s independent scientific advice will help ensure that the health claims made on foods are accurate and helpful to consumers in making healthy diet choices. The scientific opinions will inform future decisions of the Commission and Member States concerning the authorization of health claims.” In 2006, the precedent had been set:

EU decision makers adopted a regulation on the use of nutrition and health claims for foods which lays down harmonised EU-wide rules for the use of health or nutritional claims on foodstuffs based on nutrient profiles. Nutrient profiles are nutritional requirements that foods must meet in order to bear nutrition and health claims. One of the key objectives of this Regulation is to ensure that any claim made on a food label in the EU is clear and substantiated by scientific evidence.”

While the U.S. FDA has cracked down on some health claims, its policies could be stronger and could mimic the nature of other countries, many of which do not allow for health claims to be used at all if they are not approved.

Other Countries Use a Unified Front-of-Package Symbol System

In 2013, the UK introduced a front-of-pack nutrition labeling system which rates food product components as red, yellow or green according to the fat, salt and sugar content. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, such labeling is in response to “a widespread belief that…front-of-pack labeling system using universal symbols should be instituted to further guide consumers, especially those who are less educated, more rushed, or less interested in nutrition, to make healthier choices when shopping for packaged foods.” Other countries have taken on similar strategies: “Sweden has developed ‘healthy food’ criteria for a variety of food categories. Foods that meet those criteria are permitted to use a keyhole-shaped symbol. The European Union has proposed a regulation requiring that the amounts of six key nutrients be disclosed on the fronts of all food packages.”

These techniques are in contrast to front-of-package symbols developed in the U.S.: “In the US, manufacturers such as PepsiCo and Kraft developed company systems such as ‘Smart Spot’ or ‘Sensible Solutions’ in an effort to identify ‘better for you’ foods on the front of the package. Eventually, these and other leading food companies recognized that the proliferation of different symbols, each based on different nutrition criteria, was leading only to marketplace confusion.

Then, there was the ‘Smart Choices’ program: “the logo purportedly identified ‘more nutritious choices within specific product categories,’ and products also displayed calorie information on the front of the package.” Under this corporation-controlled labeling symbol system, foods like Cocoa Puffs and Froot Loops were labeled as “Smart Choices” – so, as you can see, then, it’s really no wonder this program was eventually dropped!

As other countries have done, it is in the U.S.’s best interest to find a consistent symbol system. The Center for Science in the Public Interest asserts: “The FDA should … identify the most effective front-of-pack nutrition labeling approach (including nutrient criteria, logo, font size, etc.) for empowering consumers to choose healthier foods. The FDA and the USDA should then propose regulations for a mandatory new labeling system. The FDA and the USDA should prohibit the use of competing front-of label nutrition labeling schemes once the national system is implemented.”

With this plan, we can eliminate all of the competing symbol systems and make these symbols work as actual guiding tools for busy consumers, as other countries have found success with in practice.

We Can Do Better

These three issues are just a start in the discussion of the ways we can do better with our labels here in the U.S. By looking to innovations and regulations imposed in other countries, we can see that there are certainly better ways to design and regulate food labels. Let’s get with the times, U.S. – so we can all make better food choices every day!

 Lead Image Source: HealthGuage/Flickr