Thursday, September 24, 2009

Setbacks for Smart Choices

The Smart Choices labeling program has created quite a stir.

Following a critical New York Times article earlier this month, which Ashley Colpaart discussed here, the story has been picked up by other major outlets. Rebecca Ruiz scrutinized the program's funding sources in Forbes magazine [update: sentence corrected 9/25/2009]. Mark Bittman shared his wit in a tour of a supermarket aisle on ABC's Nightline. Tom Laskawy at Grist called the program a dumb move.

My dean at the Friedman School at Tufts, Eileen Kennedy, who is a board member for the Smart Choices program, was quoted in the Times defending the inclusion of Froot Loops, which has become the poster child for questionable products included in the program. She has taken a lot of grief for this, including unfair emails and telephone calls. She argues, in person and in public, that the participating companies deserve credit for the social responsibility they showed in giving up their separate food labeling schemes and agreeing to the stricter "Smart Choices" standards. If Froot Loops meets well-defined standards, then wouldn't it be wrong to exclude the brand simply because one doesn't like its marketing associations?

The Froot Loops example highlights a weakness of the Smart Choices program, which seems to favor reformulated branded manufactured products over traditional simple healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Dean Kennedy responds that all fruits and vegetables without additives qualify for the program, a point that was omitted from the New York Times article.

The Smart Choices program would have been wise to anticipate the criticism that it favors highly processed foods. The program could have considered stricter criteria in some areas, such as sweetened cereals. More importantly, it could have achieved a different emphasis even with the program's current criteria. It could have more strongly highlighted fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while giving a lower profile to products that have been slightly reformulated and artificially enriched to just barely meet the nutrient criteria. Then, reformulated Froot Loops might still have qualified, but the program would have been on stronger ground choosing a different poster child product -- any of thousands of simple, healthy, delicious, traditional foods.

Instead, the program's one-page fact sheet (.pdf) promotes plenty of manufactured packaged food brands but no traditional healthy foods. The program's board includes major manufacturers, but no producers or retailers of less processed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The program should have anticipated criticism of its fee structure also. Although it has a sliding cost scale for food companies, with larger fees for products that have bigger sales, the low end of the scale is still too expensive for commodity producers (comparatively small-scale producers of a non-branded food product). If the program is not just a marketing ploy for food manufacturers, or a revenue stream for the non-profit program itself, then it should permit the seller of an apple without additives simply and freely to use the Smart Choices logo. If an apple automatically meets the program's criteria, it is difficult to see what type of review the program would undertake that would justify even a modest application cost. Currently, if you search for "apple" on the program's website, you find all about Apple Jacks and very little about apples.

Marion Nestle's blog has covered this issue with cutting insight. Advocacy groups have been having a field day. is running an email campaign, with thousands of signatories already. Somebody has apparently circulated an email list of people to contact that includes faculty like myself. I read every email with interest, even though there is not much mileage in lobbying me on this topic.

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees federal policy on food labeling, wrote to the Smart Choices Program in August:
In the past five years, competing FOP [front-of-pack] symbols on food labels have proliferated. Consumer research suggests that these competing symbols, which are based on different nutrient criteria, are likely to confuse consumers. In this context, we recognize the potential value of a more standardized approach for FOP labeling.

However, since products bearing the Smart Choices symbol are just beginning to appear in the market, we will need to monitor and evaluate the products as they appear and their effect on consumers' food choices and perceptions.

FDA and FSIS would be concerned if any FOP labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Of course, some of FDA's concerns would seem to apply equally well to other front-of-pack labeling programs, not just Smart Choices.

The Board of Directors page on the Smart Choices website formerly listed affiliations for directors with senior roles at the American Diabetes Association, Baylor University, and Tufts University, but these affiliations have been removed. In an August 5 press release, the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) seemed proud to "jointly administer" the Smart Choices program along with a non-profit organization called NSF International: "Together, ASN and NSF International are committed to ensuring that the Smart Choices Program is credibly implemented, governed, and monitored." Now, however, some of the references to the ASN role have been deleted from the Smart Choices site -- for example, they have been removed from the one-page fact sheet (.pdf). ASN has tried to clarify its role in the program in a letter to members: "ASN does not own the program and does not endorse the products under Smart Choices." I wonder if leading institutions in the nutrition profession are reconsidering the program.


SarahB said...

"or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains"

That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? As a Friedman grad, I found this whole Smart Choices business shameful.

Unknown said...

SarahB- As a current student, I can guarantee that, for many, the feeling is mutual. Students have mobilized to hold an interdisciplinary discussion forum on food labeling and in particular, Smart Choices. Our hope is to have the Friedman school contribute to the on-going dialog of what an effective labeling system should look like. Many of our students believe that the focus on nutrients alone is a limitation.

The Dean did hold a Town Hall meeting to explain the situation. She stressed that the criterion is dependent on consensus science and that the decisions were made consensus based.

In a slide presentation the Dean presented to the American Dietetic Association which she recently sent to students, "Acceptance and Support of - Governmental, health professionals, academia, NGOs, food processors,retailers, food service" was stressed. From what I have read they have been unable to engage half of the categories on this list.

Follow the money.

Anonymous said...
here, FOLLOW the money, you NEED to! it's the problem that needs to be brought to the public's attention. If everyone knew how much money was being given to congress to protect the junk food companies, the public would be enraged! it's no wonder our health care expenses have skyrocketed! and they expect our taxpayers should pay for it? Why not the junk food manufacturers who are being protected by all this lobbying?

comedy movies (us) said...
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Unknown said...

So I get how you put a nice green check logo on the front of a box of Fruit Loops, but how do affix a logo to a carrot (or any other produce for that matter). Even if commodity groups like the carrot growers could join Smart Choices how would that help them with branding and consumer recognition?

usfoodpolicy said...

For fresh produce, there is some labeling on packaging (like plastic bags that hold apples or netting that holds potatoes), but the important signage is on shelf cards. If the Smart Choices label were fully accessible for promoting fresh produce, these are the places we'd see the label.