This post also appears on the Essential Nutrition Law Blog.

In an April 28 release, the Food and Drug Administration (the “FDA”) asked for comments and information from the public and other interested parties about front-of-pack (“FOP”) nutrition labeling and shelf tags in retail stores. The FOP is the part of the package label that is most likely to be examined under customary conditions of display for retail sale.

According to the FDA release, the FOP nutrition labeling effort aims to “maximize the number of consumers who readily notice, understand, and use point-of-purchase information to make nutritious choices for themselves and their families.” Specifically, the agency is seeking to learn more about:

•    the extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand nutrition symbols on FOP labeling of food packages or on shelf tags in retail stores

•    research that assesses and compares the effectiveness of particular approaches to FOP labeling

•    graphic design, marketing, and advertising data and information that can help develop better point-of-purchase nutrition information

•    how point-of-purchase information may affect decisions by food manufacturers to reformulate products

The FDA is accepting comments on this issue until July 28, 2010. Further information is available in a notice from the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services announcing the establishment of a docket to obtain the data and other information that will be utilized in the FDA’s deliberations.

These recent developments did not appear out of thin air. As noted by our colleagues at the FDA Law Blog, in a March 3 letter to industry, the FDA said it is working to devise a front-of-pack labeling system that consumers can understand and use. In the meantime, the FDA announced plans to issue new draft guidance relating to front-of-pack calorie and nutrient labeling. The agency is also planning to issue draft guidance that would recommend nutritional criteria for foods that make “dietary guidance” statements (such as “Eat 2 cups of fruit a day for good health”) in their labeling. Dating back even further, in an October 2009 letter to the industry, the FDA said it was working on developing a regulation that would define the nutritional criteria that would have to be met by manufacturers making broad FOP or shelf label claims concerning the nutritional quality of a food.

Dr. Hamburg also noted that the FDA is in the process of notifying numerous manufacturers that their current labels are in violation of the law and subject to proceedings that will remove their misbranded products from the marketplace. Thus it appears the FDA is willing to back up this position with action. Given the increasing number of headlines such as this one regarding the ability of the armed forces to find able-bodied servicemen and women, the issue of how manufacturers communicate to consumers with respect to nutritional content is likely to be a subject of FDA scrutiny for the foreseeable future.