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Honeymoon Is Over for Nutrition Rating Systems

Honeymoon Is Over for Nutrition Rating Systems

For a brief time nutrition navigation systems seemed like the best thing since, well, sliced bread.

Hannaford Bros.'s 2006 launch of its in-store Guiding Stars system was widely lauded as a breakthrough innovation that promised to cut through confusing marketing claims with a simple star system. Many wondered why no one thought of this before.

As it turned out, others were thinking along similar lines. Topco Associates soon launched the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System. Distributors including Ahold USA, Publix, Aldi and Supervalu unveiled programs of their own.

Meanwhile, food suppliers were becoming involved in initiatives such as the Smart Choices Program, a front-of-pack labeling system that gained the participation of Wal-Mart.

Suddenly the flood of initiatives ran the risk of creating new confusion. Industry insiders were quietly wondering how consumers would choose among all this guidance.

These concerns came out into the open at the recent CIES World Food Business Summit in New York, as reported last week by Mark Hamstra and Julie Gallagher of SN. In an industry panel, Kraft's Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and chief executive officer, lamented the proliferation of programs. She directed some comments to panelist Jeff Noddle, executive chairman, Supervalu, whose company is using a system called nutrition iQ. Kraft participates in the Smart Choices labeling program.

“We wish he [Noddle] didn't have his own [nutritional labeling] system, because … he has a system and many of our other customers have different systems,” she said. “It's somewhat antithetical to the idea of trying to have a common format for consumers that makes it simple for them to understand.”

Despite her concerns, Rosenfeld added that she still supports the overall direction of Supervalu's program. Her reservations were also voiced by another panelist, Brenda Barnes, chairman and CEO of Sara Lee, whose company is pursuing a different nutritional program, called “Nutritional Spotlight.”

The manufacturers made good points about potential consumer confusion, and Noddle did his best to explain Supervalu's approach. He said Supervalu decided on a strategy that works for its consumers until the industry can agree on a standard.

In effect, he was saying the industry is only at version 1.0 of nutrition rating, and it won't be until 2.0 or 3.0 that we see more uniformity. This makes sense and follows the development pattern of many other industry initiatives over the years. It's hard to agree on standards until a number of things have been tried.

Some in the industry are against all of these U.S. systems as inadequate. One of those is nutrition author and professor Marion Nestle, who spoke at CIES. She accused manufacturers of promoting health benefits of products that are not really healthy.

Nestle's outright dismissal of rating systems is unfortunate because the industry has made important strides. I'd rather see an imperfect approach for now than no guidance at all.

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TAGS: Supervalu