We’ve all been inundated with a lot of news lately, so it’s likely some in the food and beverage industries missed some important news coming from — of all places — a University of Montana cafeteria.

Cafeteria administrators at the university removed the nutritional food labels from the school’s main dining hall because, according to officials, they were causing too much congestion in the serving lines. In other words, the students were taking too much time reading the labels.

The fact that reading food labels was causing congestion tells us that consumers do indeed take the time to read nutrition labels, which is important for the food and beverage industries. Further, consumers are concerned about the ingredients in the food they select. To address these concerns, food operators should make sure the labels placed on the food items they market are clear, easy to read and up to date.


Insight into food labels

There’s a lot more to food labels than most of us realize. According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Diets: A Guide to Health and Nutrition, a food label tells consumers about the ingredients and nutritional composition of the food they select.

Labels have been on food items since the early 1900s, but in 1924, the Supreme Court put some teeth into food labels, indicating how transparent — or not — these labels had to be at the time. The court ruled that labels could not be misleading or deceiving to consumers.

In the United States, the food-labeling industry is regulated by two large federal bodies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The USDA oversees the proper placement of labels on meat, poultry and egg products, while the FDA primarily is focused on foods such as seafood, bioengineered food products and the dietary supplements posted on food labels.

However, these are not the only federal departments involved in food labeling. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulates alcohol beverages, and the U.S. Customs Service requires specific information be placed on the labels of imported food items.

Although the goal of all of these organizations always has been to protect the health and well-being of consumers, for food processors and operators, keeping up with these government agencies and their regulations can be complicated.

This particularly is the case for convenience store operators, large and small grocery stores, commissaries and even cafeterias, such as the one at the University of Montana.

Fortunately, today, technologies are available to help food processors and operators quickly make labeling changes in one or multiple locations at the same time. Moreover, cloud-based recipe menu systems are in the pipeline that can make keeping labels up to date even easier. If the recipe for a food item changes, for instance, the values automatically will be recalculated and the labels automatically adjusted to reflect those changes, ensuring greater nutritional accuracy.

Such labeling technologies are emerging at just the right time because the FDA is making regulatory changes to food labels that will go into effect starting next year.* The following are some of the upcoming changes from the FDA:

Font and terminology: Some type sizes will be increased to make it easier to see the number of calories a food product contains, as the FDA does not want consumers searching for this information on a food label. Steps also are being taken so that terms, such as “servings per container” and “serving size,” which often cause confusion, are clarified.

Vitamin D and other nutrients: Manufacturers must declare the actual amount and percent daily value of vitamin D in a food product. This also applies to calcium, iron and potassium and reflects new data on how these ingredients can impact health.

Fat: The term “calories from fat” is on the way out. The FDA believes knowing the type of fat in a food product — saturated fat, trans fat, etc. — is much more important.

Values: Daily values already are on food labels and reference the amount of nutrients consumers should consume or not exceed each day. Called “percent of daily value,” these are being recalculated starting next year.

The food and beverage industry can expect two overarching changes in the coming years regarding food labels: they will be ever evolving, and they will be read more often.

Several studies indicate that our Montana college students are not the only ones reading food labels — we all are. Consumers want accurate, transparent labels, but for food operators, opportunities will present themselves. Providing them can help market their food products and build brand loyalty.

Food manufacturers with sales more than $10 million annually must comply by July 26, 2018; manufacturers with sales less than $10 million annually have an extra year to comply; the actual compliance date may be extended. BI