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Democrats press for food labeling overhaul

Capitol Hill 2019

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate recently introduced legislation to modernize food labeling.

The Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2021 marks an effort to help consumers make healthier food choices and reduce confusing or misleading labels.

Obesity and diet-related disease cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually, as well rising healthcare costs, but based on current food labeling requirements, families don’t always have the information they need to make healthy decisions, according to the sponsors of the legislation in an Aug. 4 news release.

The bill would build on progress made by FDA, which has updated certain requirements for the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods, lawmakers said. They added most food labeling provisions of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act haven’t been updated since 1990, and in some cases, provisions have not been changed since the law was enacted in 1938.

“This bill will bring much-needed clarity to food labels so Americans can make informed, healthy decisions for themselves and their families,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a statement. “Current labels are a confusing maze and fail to provide important, useful information to consumers.”

He added, “The Food Labeling Modernization Act will ensure serving sizes are updated, allergens are clearly labeled, and nutritional information is transparent, giving people the tools they need to make healthier choices and avoid misleading, deceptive pitches and promotions.”

Blumenthal introduced the bill in the Senate, along with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. In the House, the Food Labeling Modernization Act was introduced by Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations.

“The Food Labeling Modernization Act will give food labeling requirements an important and long-overdue overhaul,” DeLauro said in a statement.  “Food labels should give a clear, accurate, and fair representation of the product, and that is just not the case right now.  This common-sense bill would provide more information to consumers—information that is vital as people make choices about what food to buy for their families.”

Several consumer groups expressed their support for the bill, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Reports, Environmental Working Group, Gluten Free Watchdog, National Celiac Association, Celiac Disease Foundation, Beyond Celiac and Gluten Intolerance Group.

“The past year has laid bare how our nation’s ill health can make us more vulnerable to new threats, like the coronavirus,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement.  “Many of the same conditions identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19 can result, in part, from poor quality diets.  It's time for the United States to take bold action to reduce the prevalence of diet-related diseases by passing the Food Labeling Modernization Act.”

In an Aug. 6 alert, lawyers at Covington & Burling LLP concluded the bill would necessitate “significant changes to most food labels.”

“While the sponsors believe these changes are necessary to ensure consumers have the information needed to make healthier and more informed purchasing decisions, we believe that, at present, such changes are not among FDA’s priorities,” the attorneys added. “The FLMA would impose significant new obligations on the agency, as well as food manufacturers. FDA currently seems more inclined to focus its resources on food safety issues, particularly given that the agency updated its nutrition labeling requirements relatively recently.”

The Consumer Brands Association, which represents the consumer packaged goods industry, is reviewing the bill's details, according to a spokesperson for the group.

"We will continue to work with all federal partners, including Congress and regulatory agencies, to advance smart regulations," the spokesperson said in an email. 



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