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A bid to make labels digestible

FDA, firms want shoppers to get facts on nutrition

Kellogg has unveiled new cereal package designs intended to make it easier for consumers to quickly find key information about nutrition. Kellogg has unveiled new cereal package designs intended to make it easier for consumers to quickly find key information about nutrition. (ap/kellogg corp.)

WASHINGTON - Next month, General Mills Inc. and Kellogg Co. will begin labeling their cereals with symbols that summarize complex nutritional information - part of the growing use of logos to steer harried grocery shoppers toward healthier choices.

The proliferation of such symbols is a worldwide phenomenon, with government regulators in Britain, Sweden, and elsewhere establishing logo systems that concisely indicate the nutritious value of food products.

In the United States, however, corporations have been left to devise their own methods.

That's led to a patchwork of systems that some fear further confuses consumers already unsure about how to eat wisely.

The Food and Drug Administration took a first step toward improving the system, inviting food companies, trade groups, watchdog organizations, medical specialists, and its overseas counterparts to share how front-label symbols, such as the "traffic light" system used in Britain, can improve public health.

The FDA stressed the meeting was a preliminary step as it considers whether to establish a national symbol system. Any action is probably years away - and, even then, any system is expected to be voluntary.

Absent federal action, food manufacturers and retailers have devised their own methods. PepsiCo Inc. uses the "Smart Spot" symbol on diet Pepsi, baked Lay's chips, and other products. Hannaford Bros., a New England supermarket chain, uses a zero to three-star system to rate more than 25,000 food items it sells. And in Britain, the government has persuaded some food companies to use a ranking system with green, yellow, and red lights to characterize whether a food is low, medium, or high in fat, salt, and sugar.

"A whole range of consumers likes it and can use it. And the important thing is that we know that it is actually changing what is happening in the marketplace," said Claire Boville, of Britain's Food Standards Agency, citing increased sales of foods flagged with the green and yellow symbols.

Last week, Hannaford reported similar results.

The General Mills and Kellogg's versions will highlight sugar, salt, and nutrient levels, as well what percentage each contributes to what consumers typically require, officials said.

Overall, there is little consistency among the competing symbol regimes in use, according to the FDA.

"We really don't have adequate information about the various programs to understand how their criteria work and how they are used and understood by consumers . . . and how they may effect market choice," said Michael Landa, deputy director of the FDA's food office.

Although Landa said the agency is in information-gathering mode, one lawmaker said he would move forward with legislation compelling the FDA to establish a single set of nutrition symbols. The push comes as obesity rates continue to climb in most states.

"The proliferation of different nutrition symbols on food packaging, well-intended as it may be, is likely to further confuse, rather than assist, American consumers who are trying to make good nutrition choices for themselves and their families," Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, said in a statement.

A petition filed in November by the Center for Science in the Public Interest also asked the FDA to create a national front-label symbol system. Such a system should complement but not replace the sometimes dizzying information packed into the nutritional labels most foods now have, said Michael Jacobson, the advocacy group's executive director.

Absent congressional action, Jacobson said, it could take a decade for the FDA to set up such a system.

National Dairy Council nutrition specialist Ann Marie Krautheim said setting up a consistent system would be helpful, if grounded in science and tested with consumers to ensure it worked.

Shoppers spend as little as two seconds evaluating food labels, research shows.

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