Sunday, February 21, 2010

Food Labels, Generation Two

When I was president of the Society for Technical Communication, I gave the President’s Award to the US Food and Drug Administration for their food labels. I thought then--and continue to believe now--it is one of the most incredible feats of technical communication ever pulled off. The FDA managed to develop a clear, consistent means of informing consumers what’s in their food.

One of the significant accomplishments was bringing consistency and order to what was once an open frontier on food labeling, which caused more confusion than clarification. They standardized portion sizes, so companies like Ben & Jerry’s—who load their ice cream with fat—couldn’t make it look lighter by reducing the portion size. They also standardized terminology, providing clear definitions for light, fat-free, and other reduced calorie foods.

This was no easy task, given all of the different parties with differing interests involved. But the FDA prevailed and the public interest was served.

Now, the FDA is addressing the next generation of issues. Portion sizes mentioned on labels are purposely kept small because they look less offensive, even though the sizes are not reflective of what people eat. Well it seems that the FDA is getting the message and is about to re-define portion sizes again, making them more reflective of what people actually eat in a portion. Like half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s instead of a quarter. (OK—I made that one up; besides, don’t most people eat the whole pint?)

For more, see Wiliam Neuman’s article from the February 5 issue of the New York Times at


Susan Burton said...

I had no idea that you and STC had been involved in this important effort. A good friend of mine in the 1980s worked on the Hill and was diligently trying to get food labeling passed (because he had almost died as a baby--he was allergic to something like 99 of the 100 most common allergens. I have my sensitivities so this is a very personal issue for me. Thank you for your contribution!

Saul Carliner said...

All I did was acknowledge the work that the FDA had done. I still think it's one of the most significant pieces of technical communication.