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Final Version of Food Plan Requires Fat, Fiber Listings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration Tuesday released its final proposal for sweeping changes in the nutritional labeling of food products.

The proposed reforms, initially outlined by Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan in March, would require manufacturers for the first time to disclose detailed information about saturated fat, cholesterol and dietary fiber contained in their products.

The mandatory labeling would be extended to include fresh seafood and produce, which have escaped such disclosures in the past. The proposals, to be published in the Federal Register later this week, follow months of hearings on mandatory nutritional labeling regulations, which have gone unchanged since 1973. Sullivan said that the new regulations should take effect by the end of the year.

Left unsettled, however, was whether states can require separate warning labels. Sullivan reportedly favors preemption of state regulations, but other Administration officials are said to believe that the states should be permitted to adopt more stringent rules.

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The outcome of the preemption dispute could affect implementation of California’s Proposition 65, which requires strict warnings on food products concerning carcinogens or mutagens.

“We should not have states add their own labeling statements on nutrition or food safety (as required by) Proposition 65,” said Roger Coleman of the National Food Processors Assn. “Even villages and townships could come up with labeling requirements absent a national policy on food labels.”

Consumers depend on food labels as their primary source of nutritional information, said Sullivan, whose department oversees the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA will implement the new regulations.

“Simply put, Americans must be helped, not hyped or hustled in the supermarket,” Sullivan said at a food safety conference. “The actions which I have outlined today will go a long way toward addressing the perplexity and frustration in the marketplace by making labels more clear and cogent.”

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Under the regulations, the new food labels would display prominently the total calories from fat, and the amounts of dietary fiber, cholesterol and saturated fat contained in the product. Manufacturers would no longer be required to state sugar content, however.

Nutritional information for fish, fruit and vegetables could be provided by supermarkets in the form of shelf tags or booklets.

Three nutrients now required on food labels--thiamine, riboflavin and niacin--would become optional listings for processors under the proposed regulations. Certain foods, such as those served in restaurants, bakeries and cafeterias, would be exempt from the regulations.

In addition to requiring information on fat, the regulations also would define terms such as “cholesterol free” and “low cholesterol,” which Sullivan acknowledged have been misused by some manufacturers.

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The regulation affects only those foods under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Meat and poultry products, which fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are undergoing a separate labeling revision.

Reaction to Sullivan’s announcement was generally positive.

“We’re pleased to see the issue was moved upon so quickly,” said Eileen Gale Kugler, communications director for Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a Washington advocacy group. “Mandatory nutritional labeling is critical. . . . We think it is an important step forward.”

Kugler was critical, however, of the government’s decision to no longer require sugar content listings.

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