When the First Lady of the United States commits to an issue, she commits. And no issue has been closer to Michelle Obama's heart than childhood obesity.
Her desire to use her clout to spur nutrition prompted the First Lady to give a speech last March, in which she urged food manufacturers to create labels for their products that would help consumers do a better job of choosing the right foods.
In May, she announced Let's Move, a national anti-obesity campaign targeting children. In September, she urged the restaurant industry to step up. And last week, Mrs. Obama joined Wal-Mart corporate execs to launch the brand's healthy eating initiative.
Now the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute have worked together to answer Mrs. Obama's call, but the new labels they're introducing, dubbed Nutrition Keys, leave a lot to be desired, meeting with only "tepid" approval from the First Lady — and thus the White House and the Federal government.
Their proposed label system, reports the New York Times, met with "only tepid approval from Mrs. Obama," and the White House said it would "look forward to future improvement."
What happened? Apparently, food industry representatives held talks with the White House and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but no consensus was reached on a new labeling strategy.
Reports the Times, "The Obama administration wanted the package-front labels to emphasize nutrients that consumers might want to avoid, like sodium, calories and fat. But manufacturers insisted that they should also be able to use the labels to highlight beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and protein."
In an effort to take the proverbial bull by the horns, the food industry preempted any further discussion and created their own labels, which display information on four "Nutrition Keys": calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Manufacturers can also display two "nutrients to encourage" on each package, which are to be selected from this list: calcium, potassium, fiber, iron, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D.
The new labeling strategy replaces a previous initiative from two years ago, Smart Choices, which was criticized by the FDA as misleading. The FDA said it wanted to see a system that more clearly identified "favorable" and "unfavorable" nutrient content.
The new system does nothing to call attention to any negatives, however. Former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler suggested that food manufacturers should follow government rules rather than launch their own labels. Kessler said, "What the industry is proposing can make something look healthier than it really is."
For the industry's part, however, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute indicated that the new labels will begin appearing in a few months and, by late this year, an ad campaign would be launched to promote the labeling strategy.
Leslie G. Sarasin, CEO of the Food Institute, says they're moving ahead with the labels because "the First Lady asked us to do it." But if the FDA continues to question the strategy, the food manufacturing industry may be left with egg on its face.