It has been 29 years since the Nutrition Labeling Education Act passed Congress, which required all food to have a label breaking down nutritional information and listing the calorie count. Most Americans have come to rely on that label to help guide decisions about their diet.
Most people, however, don’t give much thought to how those labels are created or how their accuracy is verified. For Donnell Scott, who farms near Manhattan, Kan., labeling is a livelihood. She works for AIB International (formerly known as American Institute of Baking), creating labels for hundreds of food packages.
Scott also serves on the food labeling and education committees for Kansas Agri-Women and is a past national president of American Agri-Women. She says her work experience in meat quality control and food labeling, and her background as a farm wife and now a farmer herself following the death of her husband two years ago, make it easy for her to help educate consumers about food labels.
“Usually, when you mention labeling, everybody immediately thinks of controversies such as bioengineered foods or ingredients,” she says. “But there is a lot more to the nutritional label regulations than many people realize. And people are going to start seeing new labels in January of 2020 as the changes that FDA put in place two years ago hit the mandatory compliance date.”
For companies with $10 million or more in annual sales, the mandatory compliance date is Jan. 1, 2020. Smaller companies have until Jan. 1, 2021 to comply.
The biggest change will be that calories per serving will become a lot more visible with calorie counts in bigger print size. That’s a regulatory attempt to combat obesity by making Americans more aware of their total calorie consumption.
“We often have products packaged as a single item — like those big muffins you see in convenience stores — that are typically consumed in one sitting but is actually the size of two or three servings,” Scott says. This will pull out the serving and calorie information in a very visible way.”
The new labels will also include numbers for total sugar in a given product but will break out information on how much sugar has been added during processing. Vitamin D and potassium daily values will be required, and vitamin A and vitamin C labeling will become voluntary.
Scott creates labels for companies by utilizing a proprietary AIB data base that provides nutritional data for a variety of ingredients.
“My customers basically send me a recipe — a list of ingredients and amounts of each — and I compute the nutritional data for each ingredient,” Scott says. She adds that there is also an analytical laboratory available at AIB if physical analysis is needed.
Scott says two final rules came out Dec. 21. The first involved technical amendments to the nutrition facts changes, correcting a number of errors in the initial rule change made in May of 2016. The second was the final regulation on labeling GMO foods.
“Most companies are kind of in a holding pattern for getting the new nutrition labels done because they want to handle the GMO labeling at the same time,” she says. “It’s expensive to create new labels and companies want to have to do it only once.”
Scott says she has been surprised as she completes her work in consumer education that many people think bioengineered foods are far more common than they really are.
“I have my list of bioengineered food and it’s pretty short: squash, soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, potatoes and apples. That’s it. Well, there is also Aqua-Advantage salmon and pink-fleshed pineapple, but they aren’t sold in the U.S.”
She says trying to combat misinformation and misunderstanding is one of the more difficult parts of her Kansas Agri-Women education duties.
“I get questions all the time about glyphosate in oatmeal or in bread,” she says. “People think that because farmers use RoundUp to burn down weeds before planting, there’s somehow contamination of the grain that carries over into food; or that because some Canadian farmers use glyphosate to desiccate oats for harvest, it would be in oatmeal. In reality, any residue that has been detected is well below the limits set by EPA.”
The rules for bioengineering labels exempt a lot of foods from the requirement, including highly refined oils, meat and other items.
“The biotech traits are usually expressed as a protein in the plant,” she says. “There is no protein in refined oil, so there is no biotech trait.”
There are also no biotech traits in meat.
“I’ve talked to consumers who are convinced that there will be GMOs in meat because the animals are fed grains that have bioengineered traits. But animal digestion does not transfer those traits into the muscle or fat of the animal,” she says. “That’s basic meat science.”
Scott knows basic meat science by virtue of a college degree in animal and meat sciences and a 15-year career as a meat quality inspector at packing plants in Nebraska, Topeka and Wichita before joining AIB in 1995.
“It’s a matter of helping people understand science,” she says. “That’s enough for some people, but I’ve become aware that there are some people who are just totally convinced that the misinformation that they have seen repeatedly is correct. It’s unlikely we are going to change those minds.”
She says she is hoping that people will become more aware of food ingredients and the science of nutrition as they become familiar with the new labeling for both nutrition and bioengineering.
She expects the coming year to be a busy one as her customers scramble to get new labels created in advance of the compliance deadline.
“It’s likely going to be a pretty busy year on the farm, too,” she says. “And for Kansas Agri-Women. I won’t be bored. That’s for sure.”