Proposed Legislation to Require Uniform Front-of-Package Food Labeling System

October 3, 2013

Food labelingOn September 19, Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that could radically change the appearance of food labels in the United States.  Entitled “Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013,” H.R. 3147 calls for numerous amendments to Section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act(FFDCA), including a directive to the Secretary of Health and Human Services—the governmental department overseeing the FDA—to implement a standardized system for front-of-package (FOP) labeling.

In a statement that accompanied the bill, Representative Pallone cited America’s growing obesity problem and consumers’ concomitant desire to make healthier buying decisions as the driving forces behind the proposed legislation, which attempts to de-clutter FOP labels and clarify certain claims of nutrition.  If passed, H.R. 3147 would overhaul some provisions of the FFDCA that have not been updated since 1990 and others that have remained untouched since 1938, when the FFDCA was originally enacted.  The bill has support in both houses, as Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) join Pallone in sponsoring H.R. 3147.

The overhaul proposed by the Food Labeling Modernization Act is fourfold:

  1. Simplified, standardized FOP labeling system.  Directing HHS to promulgate regulations for single, easy-to-read symbols to be used on the front of food containers that would display calorie information, serving size, and relevant nutrients in a consistent and prominent design.
  2. Substantiation of structure and function claims.  Requesting guidance from HHS to clarify section 403(r) of the FFDCA as it relates to mechanisms by which a food nutrient affects the structure or function of the human body.
  3. Clarify food marketing buzzwords.  Asking for clarification on or uniformity among the use of various food marketing buzzword including:
    • “Whole grain,” “multigrain,” “wheat,” and “whole wheat”
    • “Natural”
    • “Healthy”
  4. Updates to ingredients and information labels Calling for all sugars, non-caloric sweeteners, and sugar alcohols to be grouped together for purposes of ordering ingredients by predominance.  Also mandating that foods containing a threshold amount of caffeine be labeled as such.

As Congressman Pallone mentioned, H.R. 3147 comes at a time when eating healthier is at the forefront of people’s minds.  In fact, section 303 of Senator Tom Harkin’s Senate Bill 39, introduced in January 2013, includes similar language asking for the development of a front-label food guidance system.  And use of the word “natural,” specifically, has come under fire in numerous recent lawsuits, including two in which the presiding federal judges have sought guidance from the FDA.  (Notably, in its proposal regarding “natural,” Pallone’s bill does not make explicit mention of genetically modified organisms or GMOs.)

It will be interesting to see how Congress deals with the proposed legislation.  As of this blog post, it has been referred to the House Committee on Energy & Commerce.  If you’d like to remain updated as to the bill’s activity, I suggest pulling up the bill on WestlawNext and clicking on the Bill Tracking and Bill Activity tabs at the top of the document.