The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the federal agency that was formed in 1906 to protect and promote public health, and regulate and supervise food safety and other products, including pharmaceutical drugs and veterinary products. Part of this function involves regulating how foods are processed, packaged and labeled.
Like all legislation, together with rules and regulations, those relating to food packaging and labeling change from time to time. The FDA supplies information about any changes on its website, so that both manufacturers and consumers are constantly informed.
Packaging is covered primarily by the FDA’s Food Contact Substance (FCS) Notification Program that governs the materials used in “manufacturing, packing, packaging, transporting, or holding food.” There are additional regulations that govern the packaging of irradiated food, including disclosure of the fact that the food has been treated with radiation or by irradiation on the label.
Food labeling is necessary for most processed or “prepared” foods including frozen and canned food, breads and cereals, snacks, drinks and desserts. Regulations include the need for nutrition facts on labels, as well as what type of claims may and may not be made on labels. Nutrition labeling on raw fruit and vegetables, and fish is voluntary.
FDA Regulations on Food Packaging
A primary concern of the FDA is that packaging and the “food contact substances” used for packaging, is safe. These include plastic packaging materials (polymers), the antioxidants and pigments used in polymers, can coatings, as well as adhesives and the various materials that are used when paperboard and paper are manufactured. Various antimicrobial agents like slimicides and biocides, as well as sealants for caps and lids are also covered.
Ultimately the question is whether food contact substances are safe or potentially hazardous to humans (and animals). And before any new FCS can be used for packaging, it must be thoroughly tested by the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS) to assess any impurities or toxins, and to make certain that it really is safe for use with food.
Additionally, the use of recycled plastics in food packaging has been carefully considered by the FDA. However, they have only produced guidelines for industry, and these are not legally binding.
FDA Regulations on Labeling and Proposed Updates
The US Nutrition Facts Label was introduced two decades ago in an endeavor to help consumers make informed choices about the food they buy. However only one major change has been made during this period of time: in 2006 the regulations were changed to add a requirement that trans fat be declared on labels.
Surveys undertaken by the FDA in 2002 and 2008 show consumers do use the nutrition label when selecting food items. With this in mind, the FDA has proposed changes to labeling that will become effective in January 2018. These changes relate to design and required content declared on food packaging labels:
- A greater understanding of nutrition science. As a result of this growing understanding, the FDA will require information about “added sugars” on labels, as well as daily values of nutrients including vitamin D, dietary fiber and sodium. They will also require manufacturers to state the amount of vitamin D and potassium on labels, along with calcium and iron that has always been required. The requirement to state “calories from fat” on labels will be removed because the FDA acknowledges that the type of fat is more important than amount. “Total fat,” “trans fat,” and “saturated fat” quantities will still be required.
- Serving size information to be updated. New label information will reflect what people eat, not what the authorities think they ought to be eating – even though the new servings will be larger than they were previously. Further, food and drink typically consumed in one sitting must be declared as a “single serving,” together with nutrient and calories information for the package. If food or drink is likely to be consumed in multiple sittings, per serving and per package information will have to be included.
- New label design to reflect important health concerns. Recognizing the need to address public health issues including diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, the FDA has proposed that the design of the new labels will emphasize the percent daily value – which indicates the daily percentage of nutrients available from single servings.
Changes will apply not only to foodstuffs manufactured, packaged and labeled in the US, but to imported foods as well.
At the end of the day, the most important factor for food manufacturers is that the packaging and labeling they use is FDA compliant.
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