Wayne Jacobs, president of the Baltimore-based Jacobs Jenner & Kent, is feeding his audience questions. He wants to find out how the members feel about the food label in general and a proposed food labeling brochure in particular. His questions go something like this: "Do you read food labels? Why? What do you look for? How would this brochure help you change your behavior?"
He gets a variety of answers.
"I have to watch for too much sodium," says one, explaining why he reads food labels. "I look for the cholesterol levels all the time," says another.
As for how the brochure might change behavior: "I'm going to start reading [labels]," a woman replies. "I'm going to pay more attention to ingredients," says another. And still a third: "Am I going to apply [the food label] daily? Probably not."
Jacobs isn't asking his questions out of idle curiosity. He's asking because the Food and Drug Administration has hired his company to develop and test a food labeling brochure for consumers with limited reading skills.
The brochure is one of many educational materials being developed as part of a food labeling education campaign headed by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (USDA regulates meat and poultry; FDA is responsible for all other food.) The campaign focuses on helping people--especially those at greatest risk for poor nutrition--become aware of the new food label and use it to make healthy food choices.
Jacob's questioning took place in Greenbelt, Md., where he conducted a small-group survey of men and women enrolled in local literacy development classes. Their responses will be used to produce an FDA-USDA brochure targeted for an audience with no more than a fifth-grade reading ability.
The project demonstrates one way public and private organizations are trying to help diverse consumer groups learn about the new food label. Other groups targeted for education efforts are non-English-speaking people, older Americans, children, people with special dietary needs, and those in lower socioeconomic groups.
The campaign takes on added meaning and activity May 8, when most of FDA's food labeling regulations go into effect. On that day, by law, food manufacturers must start putting nutrition information on the labels of most of their products, presenting the information in a new, easy-to-use format. FDA is highlighting the event with new radio and TV public service announcements focusing on the labeling changes.
The new labeling regulations apply only to foods labeled on or after May 8. So consumers may continue to see the old nutrition label on some food packages after May 8.
"This campaign is not simply about a better food label on food packages," noted FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D. "It is about Americans living longer, better quality lives, and about lower healthcare costs. That's why our real focus needs to be on education."
The intent, according to Kessler, is to "institutionalize" the message about the new food label by making sure it is in appropriate textbooks, such as home economics and health books, and in materials used by nutritionists, dietitians and health educators in years to come.
A Campaign Begins
FDA took on this food labeling education challenge in 1990, when the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) became law. NLEA is responsible for most of the food labeling changes taking place. But, as its name implies, the act also emphasizes education. In particular, it calls for activities to educate consumers about the availability of nutrition information in food labeling and the importance of using that information to make healthy dietary choices.
Charged with that mandate, FDA set out, with USDA, to establish a national consumer education campaign. The agencies enlisted the help of other federal agencies, the food industry, trade associations, …