LABEL INSPECTION: LIGHT SO FAR

SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite widespread industry apprehension over the effect of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, government inspectors have apparently not been turning in-store delis and bakeries upside down in search of violations, according to a survey of 63 retailers representing more than 10,000 supermarkets.The survey was conducted by the Retail Bakers of America, Laurel, Md., and its findings

SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite widespread industry apprehension over the effect of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, government inspectors have apparently not been turning in-store delis and bakeries upside down in search of violations, according to a survey of 63 retailers representing more than 10,000 supermarkets.

The survey was conducted by the Retail Bakers of America, Laurel, Md., and its findings were presented at the association's annual conference held here March 11 to 13.

Fifty-seven percent of the retailers surveyed said they hadn't been visited by inspectors in their deli or bakery departments since the NLEA went into effect last year.

Just over 41% of the supermarket bakery and deli executives polled by RBA said their departments have been inspected for compliance, while another 2% said they did not know if inspectors had been paying calls to their departments.

"Generally, there were very few problems with the inspection process," said Peter Houstle, RBA executive vice president.

RBA has been closely tracking the implementation of the labeling law, a law that has proven particularly complex for the many supermarkets that manufacture deli and bakery products on site or in central kitchens.

"One of the reasons why we saw few problems is that, based on what I've heard from the field, talking to people in the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies as well as to retailers, is that most of the inspectors don't know what to look at," Houstle said.

"They haven't had the training, there isn't the funding out there to train them," he said.

Houstle used the experiences of retailers in one state, Virginia, as an example.

"I found out that down in Virginia there were only two inspectors in the entire state that had been fully trained on the NLEA, and one of them was hired away by a retailer down in Georgia. So there is only one left to go out and chase down these nutrition labels," he said. "Now I'm not suggesting you can get away with murder, but you can take that whatever way you want." Houstle added that it is unclear what kind of effect the new Republican Congress will have on regulatory initiatives like the labeling reform act, which first became law in 1990 under a Democratic controlled Congress.

What was the outcome of the retail inspections that had been conducted? Several retailers said the inspectors were satisfied with the labeling that they found. "They are not pushing at this time because they don't have the budget or the time to monitor it," one retailer said in response to the survey.

Other comments from various retailers surveyed included: "Some errors found; lacking in deli but was fixed quickly; OK except for sandwiches; deli cheese was lacking in nutritional labeling and a permanent label was hung, in addition to the price, on the signs."

One respondent said, "We work with independent retailers. The departments do not keep files up to date. With our regular retail visits we stress the importance of this area." Another said they had to "prove exemption on quite a few products."

The effort needed to comply with the labeling regulations in both departments has been a burden for retailers, many of whom are still struggling to maintain the eye appeal of products and at the same time label them according to the law.

On the deli side, manufacturers provide the bulk of nutrition information to retailers, Houstle said. The retailers reported that, on average, they provided nutrition information on about 18% of their deli products made on-site, either from scratch, mix or assembled from fully prepared components. Of manufacturer-supplied deli items, on average more than three quarters were labeled with nutrition information, the survey said.

From the point of view of product analysis in the deli, "the number of ingredients is far wider than in the bakery, and as a consequence it is much more difficult to generate the information," Houstle said.