Insights: Global Insights

Even Simple Front of Pack Nutrition Labels Make Exporting for a Global Market Much More Complex

Countries are seeking to promote healthier eating with front of package nutrition labeling. One immediate impact for food companies is clear – designing compliant labels across many markets has become more difficult and costly, and there is more to come

By Betty Thomas and Jack Downey

Countries across the globe are seeking to reduce the rates of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease stemming from poor nutrition in their populations. One of the most visible ways they are doing this is by requiring the use of Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labels (FOPNLs) identifying products deemed high in calories, sugars, sodium, or fats.

FOPNLs have proliferated in recent years and compliance is becoming more challenging and costly for exporters due to the great degree of regulatory variation across markets.

Is your product “high in” sugar, salt, or fats? That depends on whether a country is considering all sugar or only added sugars, total fats or only saturated fats, and it depends on the thresholds set for specific nutrients and in which market the product is being sold.

In addition, the mandatory nutrition labeling varies greatly. Some countries have adopted non-interpretive labels, which show a summary of nutritional facts. Others incorporate interpretation of the nutrient facts for consumers – most often with an octagonal “stop sign” mark warning of high calories, sugar, fats, or sodium, or with a color-coded “traffic light” mark comparing the nutrient facts to recommended values. A third category of FOPNL – summary indicator systems such as Nutri-Score or Health Star Ratings – combine multiple criteria to grade an overall nutrient profile.

Simple, black and white octagonal stop sign symbols have been implemented by seven Latin American countries. However, this shouldn’t be mistaken for a regional approach that facilitates labeling by food manufacturers. In addition to setting different nutrient thresholds, each design is unique. As a result, compliance across the region may require label redesign with multiple markings, unique labels for relatively small markets, or even reformulation to keep products under the lowest threshold.

As governments attempt to influence consumer behavior, it is likely that producers and exporters will continue to experience higher compliance costs and increasingly complex regulations.

As governments attempt to influence consumer behavior, it is likely that producers and exporters will continue to experience higher compliance costs and increasingly complex regulations.

Where might new requirements appear next?

  • Several Central American countries are currently considering the adoption of FOPNL.
  • India introduced a draft FOPNL law adopting the Health Stars Rating method in September 2022.
  • South Africa notified the World Trade Organization of draft food labeling regulations adopting a triangle-style warning FOPNL in April 2023.
  • Canada’s FOPNL regulations will become mandatory on January 1, 2026.
  • The European Commission has been working on a unified FOPNL system under the Farm to Fork Strategy, but a regulatory proposal has not been launched yet.  Instead the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union announced in its work program for January-June 2024 to continue the dialogue with stakeholders and invite them to share experiences with FOPNL systems.
  • The Biden-Harris Administration National Strategy on Hunger Nutrition and Health aims to develop a standardized FOPNL system, and the FDA has begun its study of labeling scheme effectiveness. Additionally, legislation mandating FOPNL labeling was introduced in April 2023, including interpretive labels regarding the content of calories, added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat. That legislation has not yet come up for a vote.

Varying FOPNL requirements in key markets will continue to present compliance challenges for businesses that supply many countries. The related cost of reformulation, label redesign, and/or destruction of non-compliant label stock is significant – and is compounded if companies are unaware of changes and find themselves with a compressed timeline for these compliance actions.

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