The Bush administration announced plans Wednesday for mandatory nutritional labeling on almost all packaged foods.
In a speech before a food policy conference, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan, said: ``The grocery store has become a Tower of Babel, and consumers need to be linguists, scientists and mind readers to understand the many labels they see. Vital information is missing, and frankly some unfounded health claims are being made.'He outlined what he called ``a comprehensive reform of the nation's food labeling,' the first substantial change in nutritional labeling in 17 years.
The plan, which would take effect next year after a period of public comment, would require labels with nutritional information on nearly all foods that are meaningful sources of nutrition. It would make it mandatory to provide more information, including the amounts of saturated fat, fiber, cholesterol and the percentage of calories that come from fat.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates about $350 billion worth of food sold each year. About 30 percent of that has mandatory nutritional labeling, which covers the amounts of protein, fat, vitamins and other components. Another 30 percent has been labeled voluntarily. The remaining 40 percent is not labeled.
Sullivan's plan would also give formal definitions for such phrases as ``low fat' and ``high fiber.'
At present, manufacturers can decide for themselves what is low or high. Under the administration's proposal, products may be labeled ``no fat' if they have none, ``low fat' if they contain less than a certain number of grams of fat, an amount that is being decided, and ``reduced fat' if they contain substantially less than the fat in similar products.
The proposal would extend the required nutritional information to fresh fruit and produce. This information would not be on the food but on shelves or in booklets available at the store, said Frank E. Scarbrough, acting director of the FDA's office of nutrition.
Government and industry officials said that the agency, which regulates food labeling, has the authority to carry out the proposal without action by Congress. But officials for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, said legal challenges were possible.
The plan came only weeks after Sullivan proposed changes in the rule governing health claims made on packages.
The earlier proposal would limit health claims to the few the were scientifically supported. This proposal has been published in the federal register for public comment.
The foods that already have mandatory labels are those that have vitamins or other nutrients added to them, as well as products that make some nutritional claims, like a tomato juice cocktail that claims to be high in vitamin C.
Among the products now commonly without any nutritional labeling are desserts, ketchup, steak sauce and other condiments, and crackers, candy, cookies, salad dressing, olives and pickles.
The proposal was greeted with a variety of cheers and boos from the industry and consumer groups. The National Food Processors Association said it cannot support the proposal because it would not prevent states from making their own tougher rules.
John R. Cady, president of the group, said, ``Why can't this country have a single, uniform food labeling system instead of a hodge-podge of conflicting requirements?'
He said the association is in basic agreement with most parts of Sullivan's proposal, including mandatory nutritional labels.
Industry has, in recent years, moved from opposing more labeling rules to supporting them or going along with new rules.
One of the reasons for the switch is the discovery by industry that labeling is widely read and heeded by consumers and can become a marketing tool if the product has some nutritional feature, as with adult breakfast cereals. The companies that now carry nutritional labeling have pressed for mandatory labels.
Congressional aides who follow the industry also said the companies now recognize that consumer demands for labeling are strong and more regulation is inevitable.
Industry officials said that labels are changed frequently, and, if the rule is phased in as planned, little cost would be added. Some minor costs would also be incurred in chemical analysis of foods to produce the label information.
But ``we do not consider this a major economic item,' said Jeffrey I. Nedelman, spokesman for the grocery manufacturers.