U.S. grocers joined with food and drink makers to unveil a new system on Monday for putting nutritional information on packages ahead of plans from U.S. regulators, who have called for clear and accurate labels to help fight obesity.
Critics were quick to question the front-of-package labeling move by industry, saying it appeared to be an attempt to circumvent federal regulators and to distract consumers from the unhealthy ingredients in some packaged foods.
The new program from the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is called "Nutrition Keys" and will list calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars on the front of packages.
The Nutrition Keys icon on some products also will display information about "nutrients to encourage" -- such as potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein, the industry groups said.
Nutrition Keys icons could begin appearing on packages as early as 2011, they said.
Backers said the program was developed in response to a request from First Lady Michelle Obama, who has taken on childhood obesity as her signature issue.
"We share First Lady Michelle Obama's goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation," said Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive of the GMA.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. In some states, the childhood obesity rate is above 30 percent.
Expanding waistbands are a growing problem for U.S. policymakers. Children today are likely to have a shorter life span than their parents -- which will affect their ability to work and pay taxes, while threatening to drive up health care costs. Military recruitment also has been hampered because many young people are too overweight and out of shape to serve.
Critics, who have tangled with food makers before, were skeptical about the new labeling plan, in part because it fails to differentiate between good and bad nutrients.
"The industry's unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA's effort to develop strong guidelines," Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said in a statement.
DeLauro, the former chair of a subcommittee that sets FDA funding, was a fierce critic of "Smart Choices" a controversial industry-led nutrition labeling program.
In October 2009, FDA warned companies that the agency was investigating if nutrition claims on the front of packages were misleading and called out the "Smart Choices" labels. Officials said they were developing a proposal for those labels and exploring if consumers would benefit from a single symbol to give a quick, accurate idea of nutritional content.
Food makers like Kellogg Co, which sells Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes breakfast cereals, scrapped "Smart Choices" labeling shortly after the FDA criticism.
The Institute of Medicine and the FDA have been working to develop reports and potential guidelines for what type of nutrition information should be permitted and required on the front of food packages, said Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
"There is much at stake," said Brownell. "Millions of people see thousands of products each day and deserve a labeling system that helps them understand nutrition information rather than misleads them."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group, said: "It's unfortunate the industry wouldn't adopt a more effective system or simply wait until the (FDA) developed a system that would be as useful to consumers as possible."