Multinational Food Companies Could Face Tougher Ingredient Labeling


Multinational food companies like Nabisco, Kellogg, Unilever, and Nestlé might have to disclose on labels the percentage of key ingredients in their products if tough new labeling standards eventually are adopted by a group of more than 50 countries meeting to debate international trade rules for the food industry.

Currently, most countries require that ingredients be listed on food labels in order of predominance. Under proposals favored by some countries and consumer advocacy groups, disclosing the actual percentage of major ingredients would become mandatory. If countries adopted such standards, labels would reveal that: 

* Kellogg's Frosties cereal contains 39 percent added sugar; 
* Ritz Bits Cheese Sandwiches contain only 3 percent cheese; 
* Kellogg's All Bran Apricot Bites contain only 6 percent fruit; 
* Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup contains only 8.5 percent mushrooms; and 
* Heinz's canned tomatoes consist of 40 percent tomato juice.

"Percentage ingredient labeling is a common-sense measure that would help prevent consumer deception and encourage companies to provide more healthful and less unhealthful ingredients in their foods," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who also serves as president of the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO).

"Such a requirement would also help consumers follow World Health Organization recommendations to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and to reduce consumption of added sugars," stated Bill Jeffery, CSPI national coordinator for Canada.

The new labeling standards are being considered by a committee of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO, which is meeting in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, May 7-13. Codex standards take many years to develop and are not binding, but often pave the way for mandatory legislation because many nations around the world use them as a model for national laws.

Percentage ingredient labeling regulations are already in effect in the European Union, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand.

Multinational food companies closely follow the development of Codex standards because they may lead to new regulatory requirements that are generally immune from challenge as trade barriers at the World Trade Organization.

The International Council of Grocery Manufacturers Associations is attempting to stop the spread of percentage ingredient labeling requirements by opposing efforts by Codex to develop a new Codex standard. The U.S. government delegation to the Codex meeting is also opposing expansion of labeling requirements.

"We hope that governments will resist pressure from industry, and instead heed the advice of the WHO and develop international standards for food labeling that will enable consumers to improve their diets and reduce their risk of disease," Silverglade said.