TRADE TO FDA: DROP TAKEOUT LABEL RULES

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Two food industry trade groups have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to drop ingredient-labeling requirements for in-store prepared food packaged for takeout.The Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association argue that it is impractical and costly for supermarkets to affix detailed ingredient labels on their takeout items. The labels are required under

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Two food industry trade groups have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to drop ingredient-labeling requirements for in-store prepared food packaged for takeout.

The Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association argue that it is impractical and costly for supermarkets to affix detailed ingredient labels on their takeout items. The labels are required under the government's newly expanded ingredient-labeling rules.

Mandating the labeling for takeout foods prepared in stores presents an "operational nightmare," the petition states. "Retailers would be forced to abandon many foods and standardize those remaining items in order to provide complete ingredient labeling."

For instance, a submarine sandwich under the law now must include ingredient listings for each element, including the lunch meats, the cheeses, the breads and the condiments. That list can add up to 100 items just for one sandwich, the groups contend.

The groups said they want "greater flexibility" in how FDA regulates the ingredient labeling of such foods, and pointed out in their petition that the agency has exempted restaurants from the ingredient requirement.

At issue is a portion of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act that mandates all food prepared in stores and packaged for self-service carry the same ingredient labels required for all processed food.

Elizabeth Campbell, director of FDA's division of program and enforcement policy in the Office of Food Labeling, said she couldn't forecast when FDA will rule on the petition, which was filed May 20.

"They have a point: The ingredient list is long," Campbell said. "Whether they will be persuasive

that this should be changed, I don't know."

The business of preparing food for takeout has been a booming one for supermarkets. In 1992 total supermarket deli sales were $16.5 billion and bakery, $8.92 billion, much of it customized products, the associations said.

"Prepared foods that consumers can eat at home or at work with minimal cooking are an important tool in the retail grocer's constant battle to attract and retain customers," the associations noted in their petition to FDA.

As an alternative to the laundry list of ingredients, FMI and NGA have asked FDA to allow food prepared and packaged in stores to carry labels utilizing the common nomenclature for ingredients. For example, the associations listed ingredients of a submarine sandwich as sub bun, turkey bologna, turkey salami, Iowa brand loaf, pasteurized processed cheese, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and lettuce.

Campbell said under the nutrition labeling law supermarkets should now be affixing these longer ingredient labels on their takeout food. Enforcement of the law falls to state and local governments, which have the authority to seize food that is considered mislabeled.

"Yes, they are running that risk" if takeout isn't properly labeled, Campbell said.

"The likelihood of legal action may vary."

"This is truly an example of excessive, unnecessary federal regulation," said Tom Zaucha, NGA's president and chief executive officer, in a statement.

"We believe that those who formulated the regulations did not intend to place such an unreasonable burden on retail grocers," said Tim Hammonds, FMI president and chief executive officer.

In addition, the associations argue that since supermarkets typically change the mix of take-home foods for sale, it's an extraordinary burden to keep up with the proper ingredient labels and could cause retailers to limit the variety of food available.

"Retailers have learned that the factors that distinguish their departments from others contributes to customer satisfaction and lasting customer relationships," the petition said. "Limiting and standardizing product lines would cause a retail operation to lose its basic character and appeal."