FDA

The FDA Deserves Credit for Easing Food Ingredient Labeling Rules in Response to COVID-19

The flexibility will allow food makers to substitute small amounts of food ingredients temporarily without necessitating the creation or use of a new food label.

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Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was relaxing food ingredient labeling rules due to ingredient shortages associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The move is intended to benefit food manufacturers, grocers, and consumers. I think it will do just that.

Practically, the flexibility around "minor formulation changes" will allow food makers to substitute small amounts of food ingredients temporarily without necessitating the creation or use of a new food label. That will get more food in front of consumers.

Under existing FDA rules, all food ingredients must generally be listed on every food label "in descending order of predominance"—based on the weight of each ingredient that appears in the given food. For example, in a hypothetical ingredient list on a can of tuna fish that features "Tuna, Water, and Salt," the quantity of tuna in the can weighs the most; the salt weighs the least.

American food manufacturers, just like the rest of us, have been coping with ingredient shortages as supply chains are stretched to their breaking point. Flour shortages, for example, have become increasingly common in recent weeks and months. That's exactly the sort of issue this regulatory flexibility is intended to address.

"Given significant supply chain disruptions for [flour] during this time, we do not intend to object to the use of products labeled with 'bleached' flour ingredients that substitute for the ingredient 'unbleached flour' without making a corresponding label change while there continues to be 'bleached' flour shortages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," the FDA explains here, in an announcement explaining the regulatory flexibility.

While the new FDA guidance allows food makers to substitute food ingredients, the agency's flexibility isn't without some limitations. For example, it doesn't extend to known allergens, meaning a food maker may not swap out an existing ingredient for nuts, shellfish, or another allergen the agency requires food makers to disclose on the food label. It also allows substitutions only of ingredients that comprise up to two percent of the food's total weight. 

The FDA gets a lot wrong, but the agency's move this week is just the latest example of welcome and much-needed regulatory flexibility in the face of the pandemic.

In an April column, for example, I complimented the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state and local regulators for "loosening rules to ensure the nation's food system—and the people and businesses that drive that system—continues to be able to provide American consumers with adequate food." In that piece, I noted both the FDA and USDA have temporarily relaxed food-labeling rules to allow food sellers to sell foods that are not labeled for individual sale; the FDA had backed off on its food-safety inspections; and some state and local governments had loosened rules on restaurants and bars that want to sell alcohol for takeout.

The FDA's move this week does face some mild resistance. According to a writer for The Counter (to which I also contribute), "some worry" the changes could become permanent.

I don't necessarily worry about that. I support the FDA's move this week. And I'd love to see many of the aforementioned regulatory rollbacks made permanent. But it's also true that mandatory food-ingredient labels serve a vital role in food safety and consumer choice. 

In a 2013 column detailing the shortcomings of many federal food-labeling schemes, for example, I also argued that mandatory, "accurate ingredient and allergen labeling" should appear on all packaged foods. Why? Because the FDA's proper role is limited to combating the adulteration and misbranding of food that's in interstate or foreign commerce. Proper ingredient labeling is a key part of fulfilling that mission. That's why I would oppose making the food-ingredient flexibility permanent.

For now? Fret not. No one is going to be harmed by the FDA's move this week, while millions will benefit from this temporary change. Kudos to the FDA.

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26 responses to “The FDA Deserves Credit for Easing Food Ingredient Labeling Rules in Response to COVID-19

  1. No one is going to be harmed by the FDA’s move this week,

    as opposed to many of the FDA’s previous moves.

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    2. Will there still be markings to determine Kosher / parve food items?

  2. Well, maybe. They might have deserved more kudos if they had been able to think ahead and come up with this idea several months ago. For “experts”, they’re still doing a pretty poor job of anticipating “unforeseen” problems until the problems become so acute that everybody can see them. The DOT was pretty quick to ease up on the restrictions on truckers, I can’t think off the top of my head of any other government agencies that moved that fast to see a problem and react to it.

    1. I should probably amend that last sentence – I can’t think of any other agency that moved that fast to see a problem and react to it by getting the hell out of the way. Plenty of other government actors saw a problem and reacted swiftly to seize as much power as they could, like looters at a Target in Minneapolis.

    2. Since I have no clue what DOT did for truckers, can you provide a link? Thanks in advance.

        1. Wow, that was fast acting on their part. Thank you, I’m surprised DOT could move that fast.

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  3. Safe enough for the pandemic, safe enough for regular times.

    1. Too true; these are actually ‘regular’ times.
      Only the cold calculated fascist takeover by local, state, and federal executives is irregular.

    2. There is a difference between easing excessive food labeling requirements and giving manufacturers license to label food incorrectly.

  4. No credit until the changes are permanent.
    And how many grandmas are going to die when a ‘minor’ ingredient change introduces an allergen?

    1. Addressed in the article, it doesn’t apply to known allergens.

  5. I don’t believe manufacturers should be compelled to put labels on their products.

    But when they do, I want them to be accurate, and government agencies shouldn’t just be able to grant exemptions from that.


  6. While the new FDA guidance allows food makers to substitute food ingredients, the agency’s flexibility isn’t without some limitations. For example, it doesn’t extend to known allergens, meaning a food maker may not swap out an existing ingredient for nuts, shellfish, or another allergen the agency requires food makers to disclose on the food label.

    It seems to me that everything is a known allergen to somebody.

    1. Good point. “If it might help save just one life, isn’t the FDA obligated to ban food?”

    2. You’re right, but flour vs bleached flour? That’s one that’d be new to me and outright strange. If you’re substituting one thing for another that’s pretty much the same, I’m not seeing a new allergen being introduced. If you have an example where something that close does introduce a new allergy, I’d like to see it.

    3. You’re right, but flour vs bleached flour? That’s one that’d be new to me and outright strange. If you’re substituting one thing for another that’s pretty much the same, I’m not seeing a new allergen being introduced. If you have an example where something that close does introduce a new allergy, I’d be interested in seeing it.

      1. Bleached flour and unbleached flour are substantially different in composition and treatment. Substituting one for the other doesn’t cause problems for most people, but it may cause a problem in some. It would be fine if the label said “contains bleached and/or unbleached flour”. but labeling it as one thing and then putting something different in it is not OK.

        1. Ah, I understand now, thank you. The one problem with allergies is it’s effectively a problem for <1% of the population for each one. I don't have any, I know some people with some odd ones. But there's many I don't know about. I'll also believe in any food allergy at this point given everything I've come across. (I don't believe in RF allergies)

          1. Poe’s Law applies I suppose. I was joking, even though just about everything is an allergen to some minority of people.

            Of course, those people are one of the justifications for labeling too so…

  7. This is absolutely devastating for people with medical conditions. I have interstitial cystitis. This causes constant bladder pain (it feels like the worst UTI of your life) unless a strict “IC diet” is followed. Something as simple as substituting Calcium Citrate for Calcium Carbonate can make my life unbearable. The most common allergens are not the only medical issues. It’s already difficult to find food that you can eat with medical conditions like this.

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