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Proposed U.S. food label changes fall short, says former FDA head

By Anjali Athavaley

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A proposal to overhaul nutrition labels on packaged foods sold in the United States does not go far enough to influence consumer choices and reduce obesity, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner said in an article published on Wednesday.

David Kessler, who served as the agency's commissioner in the 1990s when the original nutrition facts label was designed, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the agency needs a strategy that goes beyond just altering labels.

Under an FDA proposal released in February, labels would be updated for the first time in two decades, to display calorie counts more prominently and include amounts of added sugar. The FDA says the proposal also aims to ensure that the amount of calories listed per serving reflects the portions people usually eat.

Kessler called the FDA's proposal strong. But he suggested making the ingredient lists on packaged foods more comprehensible and revamping the labeling on the front of packages to include the top three ingredients, calorie count and the number of additional ingredients in bold type. Kessler said his ideas were not fully fleshed-out proposals, but could serve as a starting point for the FDA.

The agency's goal of selling healthier food will not be easily achieved, he said. "The food industry is expert at promoting its food in a captivating manner, so the FDA has very heavy competition for the consumer's eye."

A spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group representing food, beverage and consumer product companies, pointed to a 2011 industry-led initiative to provide labels on the front of packages that show calories per serving, as well as amounts of saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Labels may also list one or two healthy nutrients if the product contains 10 percent or more of the daily value per serving and meets certain FDA requirements.

In March, the group said of the FDA's proposed updates that it was "critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science. Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

An FDA spokeswoman said in a statement that proposed changes to the nutrition facts label are open for public comment until August 1 and that the agency encourages the public to submit comments. ((http://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm385663.htm))

(Reporting by Anjali Athavaley; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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