Labeling horizons: PHO eradication, GMO delays, Post-Brexit potential

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22 May 2018 --- In an ever-changing regulatory environment, it can be extremely difficult for suppliers and food manufacturers to keep up with the challenges of what can and can’t go on the label. In both the US and UK there are a number of labeling issues of concern right now. These include the impact that Brexit will have on food and beverage labels once Britain pulls out of the EU officially next March, to GMO labeling delays in the US, as well as America’s final determination regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs), i.e., removing trans fat from the supply chain.

June 18, 2018 is the date after which manufacturers cannot add PHOs to foods, but the US Food & Drug Administration is allowing more time for products produced before then, to work their way through distribution. The compliance date for these foods has been extended to January 1, 2020 – an action which the FDA says balances the health benefits of removing PHOs from the food supply with the need to provide an orderly transition in the marketplace.

On top of this, the federal agency is also denying a food additive petition from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that requests approval for specific limited uses of PHOs. It is extending until June 18, 2019, the compliance date to stop manufacturing foods with these specific, limited petitioned uses of PHOs, and until January 1, 2021 for these products to work their way through distribution.

The use of PHOs in food has been a point of discussion for more many years as the FDA made a preliminary determination that they are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food in November 2013. A final determination – which was based on extensive research into the effects of PHOs and input from stakeholders – was released in June 2015.

WHO urges global governments to eliminate trans fat
Click to EnlargeThe World Health Organization (WHO) recently launched a new plan to eradicate industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the global food supply, claiming that their eradication is key to protecting health and saving lives. WHO estimates that trans fat intake leads to more than 500,000 deaths of people from cardiovascular disease annually.

A step-by-step guide called REPLACE has been published, which governments can use as a template for national strategies to eliminate PHOs.

Industrially-produced trans fats are contained in hardened vegetable fats, such as margarine and ghee, and are often present in snack food, baked foods and fried foods. Manufacturers often use them as they have a longer shelf-life than other fats, but healthier alternatives can be used that would not affect taste or cost of food, according to WHO.

“WHO calls on governments to use the REPLACE action package to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the food supply,” said WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Implementing the six strategic actions in the REPLACE package will help achieve the elimination of trans fat and represent a major victory in the global fight against cardiovascular disease.”

What are the six strategic actions?
- Review dietary sources of industrially-produced trans fats and the landscape for required policy change;
- Promote the replacement of industrially-produced trans fats with healthier fats and oils;
- Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially-produced trans fats;
- Assess and monitor trans fats content in the food supply and changes in trans fat consumption in the population;
- Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans fats among policymakers, producers, suppliers, and the public;
- Enforce compliance of policies and regulations.

Denmark was the first country to mandate restrictions on industrially-produced trans fats. The trans fat content of food products declined dramatically and cardiovascular disease deaths declined more quickly than in comparable OECD countries, says WHO.

“New York City eliminated industrially-produced trans fat a decade ago, following Denmark’s lead,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies. “Trans fat is an unnecessary toxic chemical that kills, and there’s no reason people around the world should continue to be exposed.”

Until June 1, 2018, WHO is running an online public consultation to review updated draft guidelines on the intake of trans fatty acids saturated fatty acids for adult and children.

GMO labeling
Click to EnlargeAnother critical topical labeling/regulation issue right now concerns GMO food labeling in the US.

Even though US consumers have been told that mandatory labels are coming to their food, delays are expected on GMO labeling rules because the US Department of Agriculture says it does not expect to meet the July deadline to create a new standard for genetically modified foods and ingredients.

Despite the landmark biotechnology labeling law being passed in 2016 under the Obama administration, US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently told the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, that “we’re not as close as I’d like” to publishing a final rule.

However, as we countdown to next month’s deadline, the jury is still out on whether or not the US will indeed need more time.

US menu labeling comes into effect
Eight years since the national menu labeling law was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act and 15 years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) began its menu labeling campaign, and the US menu labeling came into effect on May 7.

The law is the result of years of collective effort, beginning at the local and then state level with New York City, Seattle/King County, California, and others, which resulted in more than 20 menu labeling policies enacted across the country and culminated in a national law supported by the restaurant industry.

What does it mean?
The new federal law requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calories on their menus. Nutrition information will now be available at more than 200,000 restaurant locations in the US.

According to the US National Restaurant Association, the average US consumer eats and drinks about a third of their calories away from home, so this law is a huge win for everyone. Not only will it help Americans make better choices when they dine out, but it also represents a powerful example of government and industry working together.

“By working with our industry, the government addressed the areas of greatest concern and provided restaurants with the ability to implement the law in a way that positively affects customers and their dining experience. It also will help avoid costly litigation and unnecessary delays,” says Cicely Simpson, Executive Vice President, the National Restaurant Association’s.

Restaurant owners and operators have invested time and money in implementing the law as those required to comply now need to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-thru displays. They also have to provide other nutritional information to customers.

However, Simpson, also points out that a lot of steps were already taken to be in full compliance with the law, ahead of the May 7 deadline.

“The end is a new beginning: Because of federal law, we will not return to the piecemeal approach of years past, where menu-labeling laws passed on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis and in some cases, by county. For some business owners, this meant designing different menus to accommodate different jurisdictions. That is no longer the case,” she said.

Labeling implications after BrexitClick to Enlarge
Much remains unknown about the true impact Brexit will have on food and trade policy as Britain counts down the clock to leave the EU next March.

One of the issues includes food labeling, mainly because it is one of the many disputed issues in the Clause 11 row which relates to how powers are repatriated from Brussels to devolved governments i.e., Scotland and Wales in the UK.

On a more general note, some say that Brexit represents an opportunity for the UK to overhaul its food labeling policy as part of the government’s fight against obesity and as the country battles an unhealthy eating epidemic.

Right now, the EU is responsible for regulating product labeling and providing over-arching advice on fat, sugar and salt content in food and beverages. And so, once Britain, breaks away, questions remain over how the country will go forward with its food labeling policy and whether or not it will adopt a more robust stance and make nutritional information mandatory on food labels.

The Local Government Association (LGA) – which maintains communication between officers in different local authorities to develop best practice and represents the interests of local government to national government – recently urged the government to use Brexit to make traffic light food and drink labeling mandatory.

Traffic light labeling on food and drink should become mandatory after Brexit, to help people make more informed choices about the food they eat, according to the LGA.

EU legislation currently regulates food and drink labeling, meaning the UK Government can only make recommendations to the industry. In 2013, the Department of Health introduced a voluntary traffic light scheme, but the LGA said they are only displayed on two-thirds of products sold in the UK.

The traffic light system works by dividing items into low, medium or high amounts of each, with the highest marked in red, which allows consumers to see fat, sugar, salt and calorie content at a glance.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, says the traffic light food labeling system is transparent, effective and popular with shoppers.

“While many retailers and manufacturers have different methods of displaying nutritional content, this can be confusing. As a result, shoppers are unwittingly buying products which are laden with fat, salt and sugar, which is fuelling the obesity crisis,” she says.

“Consumers need a single, standard and consistent system which should be universally adopted. It needs to be something that they can read and understand quickly and easily.”

“Any post-Brexit review of EU food laws gives the Government the opportunity to introduce legislation to standardize food labeling. At a time when two-thirds of adults and more than a fifth of four and five-year-olds are obese or overweight, helping people make more informed choices about what they eat will also help tackle the obesity crisis we face as a nation,” Seccombe concludes.

By Gaynor Selby

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