On the Frontline

On the Frontline

One of the most significant changes in food labels in years has yet to launch. But when it does, retailers said they'll be ready. United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, has met with store dietitians to educate them about Nutrition Keys, a voluntary labeling system designed by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association to provide essential nutrition information at a glance.

One of the most significant changes in food labels in years has yet to launch. But when it does, retailers said they'll be ready.

United Supermarkets [4], Lubbock, Texas, has met with store dietitians to educate them about Nutrition Keys, a voluntary labeling system designed by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association to provide essential nutrition information at a glance.

Nutrition Keys uses front-of-pack icons to highlight four nutrients to limit (calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars) and eight nutrients to encourage (potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein).

An item must contain at least 10% of the daily recommended value per serving in order to carry a nutrient to encourage.

United also distributed a flier that explains how the program works. United has recommended that stores hang the handout in the employee break room for easy reference.

“Our team members will be in a position to help answer store guests' questions,” said Tyra Carter, United's corporate dietitian.

In the materials it distributes, United stresses that Nutrition Keys will not compete with the NuVal food rating system in use at United's stores. NuVal is a guidance system designed to help shoppers choose healthier foods. It assigns products a score of 1 to 100; the higher the score, the better the nutrition. Scores are posted on shelf tags.

Along with United, NuVal is in use at Price Chopper, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Brookshire's, Big Y and other supermarket chains.

“We look at Nutrition Keys as being a complement to NuVal,” she said.

The Nutrition Keys take prominent information from the Nutrition Facts Panel and pulls it to front-of-package, said Carter. It's helpful because it highlights the most important nutritional information, including calories per serving and favorable/unfavorable nutrients in terms of risk of disease, she said.

“It allows a customer to assess information by merely looking at packaging while on the shelf,” said Carter.

Carter said NuVal and Nutrition Keys can both assist shoppers in making better food choices.

“Before, if a shopper wanted specific nutritional information, they would need to take the box off the shelf, flip it over and try to read the small print,” she said. “Nutrition Keys is a lot more convenient.”

United is getting the word out about Nutrition Keys in other ways, including store tours. All tours emphasize the importance of keeping three nutrients in check: saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Nutrition Keys helps people do just that.

Another way United educates the public about Nutrition Keys is when Carter speaks at community outreach programs, such as health fairs and seminars at medical centers.

“I've already incorporated slides about Nutrition Keys into my community presentations,” she said.

In her speeches, Carter explains that shoppers can use NuVal for general guidance about healthier items in the store. Then, if they want more specific info, like sodium content, they can turn to the Nutrition Keys.

The GMA and FMI boards of directors adopted a joint resolution in support of the Nutrition Keys initiative. That means the majority of food and beverages will carry the new labels.

ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb., for instance, plans to start implementing the program in 2012 through a soft roll out in conjunction with typical package graphic updates.

“We are committed to helping consumers understand the calories and nutrients needed for good health,” said ConAgra spokeswoman Becky Niiya. “Nutrition Keys is one of the tools that can do that.”

Widespread adoption of Nutrition Keys will likely come later this year and into 2012, according to Jennifer Hatcher, FMI's senior vice president of government relations. That's because many companies need time to use up existing packaging, and redesign their labels to feature Nutrition Keys.

Several retailers and manufacturers have presented FMI with sample labels so that they can get input on what, if any, changes need to be made.

To help retailers and manufacturers understand the label changes, the FMI and GMA created a style guide. Several drafts of the guide have been made available. The latest edition was to be released this month. The style guide addresses all aspects of the new labels, including what icons should look like (color, size, font, etc.) and where they should be placed on the package.

Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., already uses an FOP nutrition labeling system that is similar to Nutrition Keys. Known as Guideline Daily Amounts, the Kellogg labels provide fact-based information to help consumers make informed choices about how the key nutrients in each product fit in a balanced and healthy diet, according to company spokeswoman Kris Charles.

Once the final style guide is released, Kellogg plans to transition to “Nutrition Keys” on all its U.S. products over time, starting with its cereal products, according to Charles.

The FMI and the GMA have retained BBDO New York, Edelman and Food-Minds to develop a $50 million, 12-month consumer education campaign that will build awareness, understanding and use of the Nutrition Keys icons.

The campaign will launch once there's wider representation of Nutrition Keys in the store, according to Hatcher.

Nutrition Keys comes at a time when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is mulling a front-of-pack nutrition-labeling program of its own. Key to its decision will be findings from the second phase of an Institute of Medicine report examining the advantages and disadvantages of various FOP approaches, and the nutrition criteria underlying the systems. The FDA expects Phase 2 of the report to be released in the fall.

“FDA will monitor the FMI/GMA initiative, and looks forward to reviewing the forthcoming IOM Phase 2 report and other research, which will inform our thinking about this issue going forward,” said FDA spokesman Sebastian Cianci.

Depending on the IOM's recommendations, the FDA could encourage the food industry to modify their FOP approach.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, a health and nutrition consumer advocacy group, said the food industry should have waited for the FDA to develop its own system.

The CSPI criticizes Nutrition Keys, saying the icons are confusing and will be largely ignored by consumers. Instead, the industry should have used an easier-to-understand system, such as one with green, yellow, and red dots to indicate whether a food has a good, fair or poor nutritional quality.

But Hatcher said the FMI and GMA have updated the FDA about Nutrition Keys every step of the way, including new versions of the style guide.

“There's an ongoing dialogue,” Hatcher said.

Nutrition Keys provides the kinds of elements the FDA has said it wanted to see on a labeling system, Hatcher added.

Hy-Vee [5], West Des Moines, Iowa, fully supports Nutrition Keys, and is moving rapidly to implement the program throughout the company, according to spokeswoman Ruth Comer.

Ric Jurgens, Hy-Vee's chairman and chief executive officer and former FMI chairman, played a vital role in bringing together key industry leaders to adopt Nutrition Keys, said Comer.

The retailer expects to receive the first of its new Nutrition Keys labels soon, according to Comer. The labels will be used on all its private labels.

Likewise, as soon as the major label manufacturers have their new labels ready, it will work them into its stores, according to Comer.

Like United, Hy-Vee views Nutrition Keys as a complement to the NuVal system it uses in its stores.

“If customers want to know the basis for an item's NuVal score, they can glance at the Nutrition Keys on the front of the package for information about key nutrients such as fat, sugar and sodium,” said Comer. “If they want a more complete picture, they can consult the Nutrition Facts box on the package.”

Nutrition Keys is significant because it's a joint effort by food manufacturers and retailers to help consumers make informed nutrition choices, said Comer.

“We believe customers have a right to clear, complete, accurate information about the foods they buy,” said Comer. “Nutrition Keys is one more tool we can use to deliver that information.”