The Food Labeling Modernization Act (FLMA) of 2021, an update of legislation originally introduced to Congress in 2018, was presented to the House and Senate in August. As written, the bill would require FDA to establish a standard front-of-package labeling system for all FDA-regulated food products. In August 2021, lawmakers introduced an update to the legislation.
The 2018 version of the FLMA required nutrition information on labels to be displayed, including nutrition facts, ingredients, and allergen information. The updated version encourages the use of substitutions for overconsumed nutrients, such as sodium, and also requires that labels provide information to consumers regarding caffeine content and gluten-containing grains.
Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, notes that the proposed law differs from existing law in that it seems to reflect more holistic approach to thinking about claims on labels. For example, currently, a producer can include a claim of high fiber on the package of a product that may also contain a lot of sugar, but the high fiber claim could suggest to a consumer that the product is more healthful than it actually is. “This bill seems to try to correct some of those issues and requires more front-of-package disclosures for foods that don’t promote healthy dietary patterns,” Beyranevand tells Food Quality & Safety. “It also seems to help to line up some of the food label issues with the recommendations in the dietary guidelines. One of the biggest changes is the requirement for a front-of-package labeling system to improve consumer understanding of the nutritional composition of the foods they’re purchasing.”
The lawmakers who authored the bill contend that consumers should be able to quickly and easily comprehend the new labeling system as an indicator of a product’s contribution to a healthy diet without requiring them to have specific nutritional knowledge. “This bill will bring much-needed clarity to food labels so Americans can make informed, healthy decisions for themselves and their families,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “Today’s food labeling standards do not provide adequate information that consumers need to make healthy lifestyle decisions.”
Shawn K. Stevens, a food industry attorney with the Food Industry Counsel, a food law firm based in Milwaukee, Wisc., notes that consumers are increasingly concerned about their health and their nutrition, and that’s reflected in the food products on the grocery shelves today. “We see it playing out on television, with commercials focusing on eating healthy and eating clean, and around the dinner table, with families being more conscientious about what we’re all putting in our body,” he says. “Congress is looking to help this trend along.”
According to Stevens, the bill looks to better create a standardized symbol that displays calorie information in relation to serving size, as well as information on saturated and trans fats, sodium, added sugars, and any other nutrients that are strongly associated with public health concerns.
Additionally, the new legislation would require that information appear on all products that bear a nutrition label directly on the principal display panel in a prominent design that contrasts with the packaging to make it easier for consumers to see and read. “I don’t see any reason why consumers shouldn’t be able to see how many calories are in a product,” Stevens says. “It would speed up the shopping process and push food companies to look for ways to develop lower-calorie foods, which would be good for everyone.”
One change that is seeing some blowback from industry, and could hold up passage of the bill, is the notion of creating a system of warning symbols for the package fronts of foods that have certain nutrients deemed to be of “lesser nutritional value,” such as saturated fats, salt, or sugars. “What’s referenced are warning symbols like a stoplight, and I think that’s a dangerous or slippery slope in that for some people, consuming extra sugars could be a good idea,” Stevens says. “I don’t think the government needs to be in a place to mandate warning labels on products that contain ingredients that have been in products for the history of time. And even worse is this proposed signaling system that would rank foods based on their overall health value. It seems like a little bit of over meddling.”