IOM Recommends a Single, Standard FOP Symbol System for Foods

November 3, 2011

By Cassandra A. Soltis

The Institute of Medicine (“IOM”) recently issued its Phase II report on consumer use and understanding of front-of-package (“FOP”) labeling systems for foods, recommending that both the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) “consider a fundamental shift in strategy” by moving “beyond simply informing consumers about nutrition facts.”   What the IOM proposes is very different from the FOP systems currently in use by industry, which generally provide succinct nutrition information prominently on the front packages of foods.  The IOM explained that these nutrient content-based systems “implicitly assume[] that consumers are receiving appropriate nutrition information”; however, what consumers really need is an “interpretive” system that “quickly and easily provides guidance to encourage healthier food choices.”  IOM, Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (2011) (hereinafter IOM Phase II Report), at S-1, 2.

The FOP system recommended by IOM includes the use of only one symbol appearing in a consistent location on all grocery products.  The symbol would display (1) calorie information, using common household measure serving sizes, and (2) zero to three nutritional “points,” with each point corresponding to a food containing a low level of sodium, saturated and trans fats, and added sugars.  IOM Phase II Report, at 7-3, 4.  For example, a food containing an acceptable level of sodium would receive one point but would not receive the other two points if its levels of saturated and trans fats and added sugars were not low enough to meet qualifying limits.

However, some foods may not even be eligible to earn FOP points if they contain saturated fats, sodium, or added sugars in amounts that are “too high” – that is, amounts “inconsistent” with 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (hereinafter Dietary Guidelines).  IOM Phase II Report, at 7-12, 13.  For example, if a food contains added sugars and saturated or trans fats in amounts that qualify for FOP points but contains sodium in an amount that exceeds the Dietary Guidelines recommendation, the food would be excluded from bearing FOP points.  The food would still have to disclose calorie and serving size information.  IOM Phase II Report, at 9-4.

Although IOM’s Phase I report, which examined the use of FOP systems, did not recommend added sugars to be included in FOP systems, the Phase II report does, in part, because the Dietary Guidelines encourage a reduction in calorie intake from added sugars.  IOM Phase II Report, at 1-6.  The IOM also recommends that FOP symbols be integrated with the Nutrition Facts box by placing a check, star, or other indicator near the nutrition component earning the point.  IOM Phase II Report, at 7-4.  Finally, the report stresses that the criteria the IOM used to evaluate foods are not recommendations but are “starting points” for “extensive computer modeling” and that FDA and USDA develop, test, and implement a single standard FOP symbol system.  IOM Phase II Report, at 7-24, 25, 9-3.  Examples of IOM’s FOP symbols can be viewed here.

The apparent divergence between IOM’s recommendations and industry’s current approach could help set the stage for conflict down the road.  FDA has stated that “the agency will consider using its regulatory tools” if “voluntary action by the food industry does not result in a common, ‘gold standard’ approach” to FOP labeling.