Transmit.gif (2940 bytes)


For Immediate
July 1, 1998


For more information:

Key U.S. Food Label Rules Lag Behind Other Nations

Consumers Overseas Get Better Information on Ingredients, Freshness, and Processing; U.S. Leads only on Nutrition

The United States lags behind many other nations in providing consumers with basic information about ingredients, freshness and processing of packaged foods. The U.S., however, along with Israel, leads the world in requiring complete nutrition information on food labels.

That is the key conclusion of a 103-page report by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). That report, Food Labeling for the 21st Century: A Global Agenda for Action, found that in countries ranging from the United Kingdom to Thailand the labels of familiar American brands such as Skippy Peanut Butter or Nabisco Ritz Crackers are required to list percentages of key ingredients; dates after which the product is no longer fresh; and precise information about irradiated, organic, and genetically engineered ingredients.

"It is surprising that in Thailand you can find out just how much chocolate is in M&Ms, in the U.S., you can find out how much saturated fat they contain, and in Singapore you can find out when they will no longer be fresh," said Bruce Silverglade, CSPI’s director of legal affairs. "Consumers shouldn’t have to shop around the world to get complete and accurate information about packaged foods," he said.

"Some countries have strong requirements for ingredient disclosure, others for nutrient content or production methods. As nations harmonize regulatory requirements to facilitate trade, they should learn from one another and incorporate into their laws the best requirements from around the world. A rising tide of international trade can lift food labeling standards to everyone’s benefit," Silverglade said.

The European Union (EU), for example, is requiring labels to disclose the percentage of the key ingredient in a food. That requirement, which becomes mandatory on January 1, 2000, provides

consumers with precise information on the amounts of meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and other key ingredients in processed foods. Thailand goes even farther than the EU by requiring the percentages of all major ingredients to be listed on labels. The U.S. requires percentage labeling only for fruit juices and a few other products and has opposed international standards for such labeling.

Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan require the labels of most foods to include a "use by" date to assure freshness. In contrast the United States does not have any type of national requirement for freshness dating and only fourteen state governments require freshness dating on some products. Some manufacturers provide the information voluntarily.

"The absence of a national freshness dating requirement in the U.S. is ironic," Silverglade said. "U.S.-based multinational companies, such as Nabisco and General Mills, routinely provide freshness dates on various products sold overseas while failing to provide that information on the same products sold in the United States."

Only two nations, the United States and Israel, have mandatory nutrition labeling requirements. Nutrition information is important for consumers who are trying to follow a healthful diet and is particularly valuable for individuals who have diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure.

"Given the prevalence of diet-related diseases, nutrition labeling is a public health necessity. Consumers in practically all countries need this information to protect their health," Silverglade said. He noted that Canada and the EU are reviewing nutrition labeling requirements, which are not currently mandatory unless a nutrition claim is made on the label or in advertising.

CSPI’s report also reviewed international approaches to the labeling of irradiated, genetically engineered, and organically grown foods. Unlike the EU, the U.S. has not finalized a national organic standard and has weaker requirements for the labeling of foods containing irradiated ingredients. Similarly, the EU, but not the U.S., requires labels to disclose whether a product is made with genetically engineered ingredients. In each case, the report strongly recommended that the U.S. raise its standards to provide American consumers with better information about processed foods.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • The United States should require quantitative ingredient labeling and freshness dating. The U.S. should also adopt more extensive disclosure requirements for the labeling of production processes including irradiation and genetic engineering.
  • Nations around the world should require nutrition labeling.
  • The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), a subsidiary body of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, should encourage countries to base their own regulations on the best labeling provisions from around the globe. International trade agreements name Codex as the lead organization responsible for harmonizing food labeling requirements.

[ CSPI News Releases ]