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While controversy swirls as to the laxity of its criteria, the Smart Choices Program, which was launched in August by a coalition of major consumer packaged goods manufacturers amid much fanfare, said last week that it would voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage broader use of its logo by member companies.
The decision came after FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the agency would develop standards for future front-of-package nutrition or shelf labeling. “We want to work with the food industry retailers and manufacturers alike as well as nutrition and design experts and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related FOP ... that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health,” the FDA said in a letter on its Web site.
“We welcome the FDA’s interest in developing uniform front-of-package and shelf-labeling criteria,” said Smart Choice Program chair Mike Hughes, VP for science and public policy at the Keystone Center in Keystone, Colo. “The Smart Choices Program shares that exact goal, and was designed to provide a voluntary front-of-package labeling program that could promote informed food choices and help consumers construct healthier diets. We continue to believe the Smart Choices Program is an important step in the right direction.”
The initiative has also come under fire from Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who has begun his own investigation into Smart Choices following criticism of the program from nutritionists and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy group. CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson initially worked to develop the Smart Choices criteria, but resigned because he considered its standards too loose.
Additionally, some coalition members are distancing themselves from Smart Choices. The New York Times reported that PepsiCo had pulled out of the program altogether in favor of the FDA’s forthcoming rules, while the Kellogg Co. said it would begin phasing out packages bearing the initiative’s logo. This morning, Unilever said that it would "transition out" of using the Smart Choices logo -- while still backing the program coalition's nutritional and scientific efforts -- and await direction from the FDA.
Smart Choices said it was providing Blumenthal with information on the development of the program, adding that it would cooperate not only the FDA, but also the Department of Agriculture and the Institute of Medicine” in creating such packaging standards.
“Our nutrition criteria are based on sound, consensus science,” noted Hughes, but given the FDA’s determination to work on labeling standards, “it is more appropriate to postpone active operations and channel our information and learnings to the agency to support their initiative.”
With criteria it says is based on the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Smart Choices came about through the efforts of a cross-section of scientists, nutritionists, public health and public interest organizations, and food industry figures.