The two most important professional food associations in America (FMI – the Food Marketing Institute - and GMA – the Grocery Manufacturers Association) announced, on 27 October that they had decided to join forces to combat obesity – and to display additional Nutritional Information on the front of packagings of all food products ("fact-based, simple and easy-to-use format"). This initiative will be backed by a pedagogical communication campaign to the tune of $ 50 million.
Commentators see this as a tactical move to "pull the rug from under the FDA" - which is actively deliberating on the subject and intends to launch a system of non-compulsory nutrition information to be displayed also on pack facings.
In fact, the debate concerns the information that should be shown:
- Official bodies (such as the Institute of Medicine of late) – would like information that would list only calories, saturated fats, trans fats, portion sizes and salt.
- The FMI / GMA box would include the "positive" nutrients - most often added by manufacturers, such as omega-3, vitamins, fibres, etc. "In addition, details will be finalized on how to provide consumers with information on nutrients needed to build a “nutrient-dense” diet and on “shortfall nutrients” that are under-consumed in the diets of most Americans"
We are here very close to the issues I raised two weeks ago in my analysis of Nestlé's strategy: food processing groups are trying to position themselves in the nutrition market... and therefore have every motive to wish to display it in the information box in question. They therefore wish to insert this information as quickly as possible, especially since the FDA inscription is not obligatory (so far).
At the same time the use of functional foods is growing (as at Gerber) and one sees authentic B to B ingredient brands emerging: the organic chocolate brand Good Cacao created by Be GOOD shows the logos of its functional ingredients on the packaging - NutriBERI, Life'sDHA, GanedenBC30, etc.
The New York Times, November 7, drew attention to the complexity of the debate in a fascinating article: "While Warning about Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales". It shows how another public body, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dairy Management, committed to developing sales of dairy products, participated in what became a vicious circle:
- The campaign waged by government agencies against saturated fats helped increase the sales of semi-skimmed and skimmed milk.
- This policy resulted in a surplus of whole milk and cream ... which were processed into cheese.
- This led Dairy Management to encourage (or even to help financially) brands to include cheese in their recipes: today Americans eat 33 pounds of cheese a year ... or thrice as much as they did in 1970!
We are clearly in a transition period, therefore complex - in a country that has so far been reluctant to formulate restrictive regulations. All those involved, however, have realized the importance of the public health question - and each one defends its own strategy. Food brands have always known how to adapt to changes in regulations - with different product ranges according to geographical regions. They are now facing new challenges – in the form of new queries raised by their customers. I therefore invite you to read the post of November 7th dedicated to another of these questions - "Where does the product I eat come from?".