Yes She Did: Michelle Obama Disses New Food Industry Labeling Scheme

Last Updated Jan 26, 2011 3:05 PM EST

When the food industry held a press conference in Phoenix on Monday to announce its "Nutrition Keys" plan for food package labeling, Michelle Obama, the self-appointed healthy-eating czar, decided not to show up for this "monumental and historic" event, delivering a painful blow to an industry she's otherwise rushed to join hands with.

In contrast to her no-show in Phoenix, the First Lady was on hand last week to lend her praise and star power to Walmart's (WMT) initiatives for selling healthier food. And last year she gushed about how it great it was that the food industry's going to remove 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015.

What "Nutrition Keys" did get was a statement so terse and qualified that no one would mistake it for praise:
The White House, including the First Lady, recognizes these companies for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative. We regard their commitment to dedicate space, for the first time, to an industry-wide front-of-pack label as a significant first step and look forward to future improvement. The FDA plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts in the field to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed. We will continue to work on seeking solutions for the problem of childhood obesity in America.
In her gentile and diplomatic way, Obama is openly questioning whether the new labeling system is going to meet "the needs of American consumers." It's likely that Mrs. Obama thinks the scheme could fall short because it allows food manufacturers to include a sales pitch on the front of their packages, something that could further confuse already completely befuddled consumers.

As part of Nutrition Keys, food companies like Kraft (KFT), General Mills (GIS), PepsiCo (PEP), Kellogg (K) and ConAgra (CAG) are going to display -- within a few months -- prominent icons detailing the things shoppers might want to limit -- calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat. But they can also highlight the presence of 2 out of a possible 8 "nutrients to encourage" -- potassium, fiber, vitamins A, C, and D, calcium, iron, and protein.

Mrs. Obama is probably wondering, as others have, why Americans need to be encouraged to eat more protein, since most of us are already getting ample amounts. Also consider that a Froot Loops box boasting of 25% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C (thanks to added synthetic vitamins) might also be a little bewildering to consumers.

Perhaps Obama is also annoyed at the way the food industry's plans are a preemptive end run around the FDA's efforts to reform nutrition labeling. Since October 2009, the agency has been languidly working on new rules for how information should be presented on food packages. By calling out the FDA in her statement, Obama clearly thinks the agency still has an important role to play here and that the food industry should not have the final word.

And finally, maybe Obama just didn't appreciate being used for political cover by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute, the trade groups spearheading Nutrition Keys. When asked by reporters why the food industry was embarking on a new labeling plan now, before the FDA had finished their work, Leslie Sarasin, the CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, said the matter was too urgent to wait, adding that "another reason for our quick action on this is that the first lady asked us to do it."

Image by Flickr user Anthony Gattine
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