Fresh Focus: Packaging for Profit

April 7, 2007

There has been much debate this spring in Washington, D.C., as to whether national food safety labeling laws should become standard and pre-empt all state laws. The House of Representatives passed the National Uniformity of Food Act of 2006 in March, which is now in the hands of the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor, where it might get sent to the Senate floor for a vote.

Groups supporting the legislation, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), assert that the existing regulations allow state labeling practices to conflict with one another, fostering confusion among consumers, while a uniform national standard would aid consumers in making informed and educated decisions about the food they buy.

Opponents of the bill, such as the Consumer’s Union, are concerned that state regulations governing food labeling – some stricter than the federal requirements – will be wiped out. For instance, Proposition 65 in California, which requires labeling of food products containing substances linked to cancer, birth defects and allergic reactions, would be nullified by the bill in question.

For more information about the bill, visit www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h109-4167.

Federal Requirements

Looking more closely at the issue raised some questions: What basic requirements are on the books and how strict are the federal rules? How do fresh-cut processors choose the words and graphics for packaging. Do they have an in-house graphic designer well versed in state and federal regulations to develop the packaging artwork, or do they depend on an outside expert such as a packaging supplier to provide these services?

To discover what basic information is required, we started at the top by looking at the federal regulations. For the purpose of this column, we decided not to cover requirements for nutrition labels, nutrition descriptors or health claims because a small book could be devoted to each category. This column also will not cover state regulations because of the differences that might show up in the 50 versions.

Minimum Standards

It turns out there are minimum standards, but they are not that simple. Specific federal regulations governing food labeling can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), specifically 21CFR 101.2-101.105. In looking at state regulations, I found most to have adopted these federal regulations, and some add even stricter language to include specific health warnings and food safety information.

According to the FDA, the agency that wrote the food labeling regulations in the CFR, the following information is required to appear on all food packaging for sale in the U.S. retail market:

•Product name used to describe the product. The description should be in common terms associated with the product and recognized by the consumer.
•Product ingredients listed in order of the predominance in the food, with the highest appearing first.
•Net weight or count.
•Nutrition label. If serving size is indicated, then the number of servings per package needs to be identified in the section indicating serving size. Fresh produce is still exempt from this rule as long as a majority of retail establishments publish the nutritional information.
•Company name and location of business. The phone number is optional. The full address must appear if there is not a current listing for the company in the local phone directory.

Other information, such as pricing, product inventory/identity code, use-by code, date code of the product or recommended handling statements to instruct consumers on handling and storage of the product, is not required by the FDA.

Location and Appearance

The FDA has given general direction to the food industry about where to include the required information on the retail food package. The options are to include everything on the front label, or the “Principal Display Panel (PDP),” or to break it up and put some information on the front panel and the rest on a side or back panel.

FDA describes a suitable side panel as the “Information Panel Label (IPL)” and specifies the IPL should be located on the side to the immediate right of the PDP when looking at the package. In the case of packaging that does not have side panels, like bagged salads and other fresh-cut products, FDA allows the information to be located on the next label panel to the immediate right of the PDP, which would be the back panel.

If choosing to break up the placement of the required information, the minimum that can appear on the PDP is the statement of identity, or name of the food, and the net quantity statement, or amount of product. The remaining information – nutrition panel, manufacturer’s contact information and ingredient list – must appear on the IPL adjacent to the right of the front label.

The next time you’re in the grocery store, take a look at some labels and see if the information is designed properly. The FDA specifies a minimum font size and placement for the required information statements based on the size of the package, but those details are too numerous to cover in this column. For more information, visit “A Food Labeling Guide” at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/flg-1.html.

The Future

Just like the country-of-origin issue, this is not the first time that an initiative to create national standards has been addressed by Congress. Nutritional labeling, organic certification, beef and poultry inspections and other food-related issues have been organized under federal oversight and passed in Congress. For food labeling, it appears that the current federal regulations are sufficient and adhered to across the nation, so a conversion to national oversight will have little effect on the industry.

If the Senate votes on this issue before the November elections, the bill might pass. There are enough Republicans in office at this time to support the bill. From an economic standpoint, the food industry would be well served with greater uniformity and national oversight. Consumers will benefit if the label information is concise, easy to find and consistent across all states.

Edith Garrett & Associates is a consulting firm specializing in helping the produce industry with third-party food safety audit preparation, fresh-cut product development, market research, marketing strategies and advertising plans. For more information, call (616) 784-2728 or visit www.edithgarrett.com.



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