The food industry program that tried to convince Americans that junk food was health food is shutting down after the Food and Drug Administration said it was going to start checking the veracity of its claims. Good riddance to the Smart Choices program, a case study of what can happen under lax regulation.
Smart Choices logos, sporting a green check mark, began appearing on the front of food packages this summer, after nearly two years of development. Almost immediately, the program came under fire for criteria so broad that it included a host of highly processed foods with unhealthy ingredients. Kellogg's Froot Loops cereal made the cut, for example, despite listing sugar as its first ingredient.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, initially worked with Smart Choices but quit last year due to the loosened standards. Here is how he described Kraft's Strawberry Bagel-ful, which earned a Smart Choices logo: "a mostly white-flour bagel stuffed with cream cheese and strawberry puree that is sweetened with sugar and colored with red dye 40. … It's exactly the kind of food we should be eating less of."
Smart Choices was an attempt to exploit a big loophole in FDA regulations, despite the growing awareness that America is facing an obesity epidemic. The FDA has strict regulations for dietary information on the side and back panels of packages but has been much more lax on the front panel. Late last month the FDA said it would soon have new rules for the front panel.
That prompted Smart Choices — finally — to announce it would suspend most of its operation. For months, it knew it was under federal and state scrutiny. The FDA had sent a warning letter in August and the Connecticut attorney general had opened an investigation into whether the program violated state consumer protection laws.
The lesson here is that the food industry will mislead consumers to the extent allowable by law. The Obama administration's FDA has a big job to make up for the laxity of the recent past. Strong front-label regulations would be a good start.