Future Issues And Concerns

The public's interest in what is in their foods continues to be high, and the pressure to provide more information will surely continue. A few matters are left over from NLEA issues.

For the present, FDA considers the voluntary nutrition-labeling programs for fresh produce and fish to be adequate and has not proposed rules making nutrition labeling mandatory for these products.

Pressure continues from some quarters for the agency to require higher-profile nutrition labeling for all foods served in restaurants, not just those that make claims. This question is of particular concern to the operators of individual restaurants because of the difficulty involved in trying to make sure menu items that are prepared and served individually are consistent enough in composition for nutritional values to be meaningful.

Trans fats are unsaturated fats that form during partial hydrogenation of oils. They are different in structure from the cis forms that occur naturally. Products that contain significant amounts of partially hydrogenated fats or oils, such as shortenings and stick margarines, may be high in trans fats. Some recent research reports have suggested that trans fats may raise cholesterol levels in the body; however, whether the research findings have any significance in actual diets is not yet fully understood. The questions of whether and how to declare trans fats must eventually be decided.

The number of nutrient content claims and health claims that will be allowed will increase as more knowl edge becomes available. The current interest in dietary supplements and functional foods will likely lead to the development of new products. Labeling will be complicated by questions of which products are foods and which are supplements.

In other areas, labels of foods that have been irradiated must disclose that fact. FDA has published guidelines for label statements on foods that require refrigeration and may eventually determine that detailed instructions for storage, preparation, and handling of certain foods should be required rather than optional. Labeling that calls specific attention to the presence of common allergens is beginning to appear. Standards for organic foods are being developed, and appropriate labeling will undoubtedly be required.

Within the public's interest in foods, a strong right-to-know element has been growing. Several consumer interest groups have asked the FDA to require percentage declaration of the major ingredients in foods. Specific groups have petitioned the agency to require the quantitative declaration of food components such as monosodium glutamate and caffeine. Groups have demanded that foods produced using biotechnology be labeled accordingly.

All this leads to the basic question of what kind of information should go on the label. Because label space is finite, a prevailing position has been that food-product labels should be required to carry only significant information about the composition and safety of the product in the package. It may be time for FDA and USDA to take positive steps to help avoid too much label clutter. It is worth remembering and realizing that there are many different ways to provide information to satisfy the public's right to know that do not necessarily involve the label itself.

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