Nearly four years after ending the much-maligned "Smart Choices" labeling program, major food companies are preparing a $50 million campaign to plug a new front-of-pack labeling system called "Facts Up Front." The effort is the latest attempt by processed-food marketers to improve their image, while keeping regulators at bay.
Facts Up Front has been rolling out slowly since 2011, with front-of-pack nutrition labels appearing on dozens of brands ranging from Trix cereal to Lean Cuisine, showing calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar content. But to date the effort has been lightly promoted. That will change early next year with the expected launch of a communications campaign including paid media and point-of-purchase marketing.
The campaign will be funded by members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food companies, and the Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers, with cash and in-kind contributions. It will be handled by BBDO, New York, PR agency Edelman and FoodMinds, a boutique firm specializing in food and nutrition. Most major food marketers will participate in the voluntary initiative, including General Mills, Kraft Foods Group, Mondelez International, Kellogg Co. and Hershey Co. GMA estimates that 70% to 80% of products from participating companies will have Facts Up Front labels by the end of the year.
The campaign comes as the marketers face more scrutiny over health and nutrition issues. There is "a small but growing group of consumers" who are "increasingly distrustful of packaged food," said Alexia Howard, who covers the food sector for Sanford C. Bernstein.
The Smart Choices program, which featured a green checkmark, didn't help. It was scrapped in late 2009 after being widely criticized for giving the seal of approval to sugary cereals and fatty products like mayonnaise. At the time, the Food and Drug Administration, which was among the critics, signaled it would move quickly to provide guidance for front-of-pack labels. But the agency has allowed marketers to proceed without much oversight, to the dismay of some health advocates who say that Facts Up Front falls short.
It "was a clever end-run around the FDA," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry influences Nutrition and Health." She said Facts Up Front labels "mix good-for-you and bad-for-you nutrients and obfuscates so nobody looks at them or understands them." That refers to the option marketers have to list two positive attributes, such as potassium or Vitamin A, along with calories, fat, sodium and sugar.
Health advocates favor an approach put forth in 2011 by the Institute of Medicine that would use a point or star system to grade the nutritional value of foods. If a product exceeded acceptable levels of fat, sodium and sugar it could not earn any stars. More-healthful products could earn one to three stars.
The study was commissioned by three federal agencies including the FDA and assembled by a committee including nutrition and marketing experts.
The approach is more evaluative than Facts Up Front, which simply regurgitates information already on the back-of-pack nutrition facts panel. Mary Sophos, exec VP-policy and strategic planning at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said that consumers "like to get information about products ... and make up their own minds. They do not like somebody else making a judgment for them."
In a statement, the FDA said it is monitoring Facts Up Front "to assess its usefulness to consumers" and will take action against marketers who don't abide by the rules.