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RETAIL VIEW: Smart Choice program to debut in August

Unprocessed fruits and vegetables automatically qualify for a new front-of- package labeling program that is designed to make it easier for consumers to make healthy choices while shopping.

The effort, called the Smart Choice program, is expected to be rolled out at retail in mid-August complete with a public relations and promotion program. This nutrition-labeling program was developed through a cooperative effort by NSF International and the American Society for Nutrition. NSF International, which was the catalyst for the idea, is an independent, non-profit organization that certifies products and writes standards for food, water and consumer goods. Sarah Krol, general manager of NSF, who will serve in that same role for the Smart Choice Program, told The Produce News that a panel of nutrition experts, including scientists, public health advocates, food industry representatives and health organizations, has developed this program and written the standards over the past two years.

The key component is the "Smart Choice" label that qualifying foods will be able to put on their packaging, thus helping consumers easily identify foods that are both rich in beneficial nutrients and lacking in negative attributes such as fat, cholesterol, added sugars and sodium. This is a commercial effort that will require participating companies to pay an annual fee based on the sales volume of the products that qualify and their use of the "Smart Choice" label. There will also be a review fee for the scientific panel to scrutinize any potential product for eligibility.

Ms. Krol said that the program has been designed to be very easy for consumers to understand. While she readily admitted that there are other similar efforts in the marketplace, including a shelf tag numerical system that rates all grocery store items on a 1 to 100 scale, the NSF executive said that the Smart Choice program is different in that it clearly identifies a healthy choice from a non-healthy product in the same category, and it involves package labeling.

The required front-of-package labeling for any participating product will include the Smart Choice icon as well as calories per serving and servings per package. She said that companies that use Smart Choice are prohibited from using any other proprietary nutritional labeling program on the package itself. Shelf tag labeling would not be in conflict with the Smart Choice labeling, nor would the use of the My Pyramid logo or other non-proprietary labeling.

Ms. Krol said that no produce industry companies were represented on the panel developing the nutritional standards, but she added that fresh produce is an important part of the program. Qualifying criteria were developed for 19 different categories with fresh produce listed at the top of the food chart with every fruit and vegetable qualifying for inclusion.

However, Ms. Krol said that any fresh produce company that wants to participate would still have to pay the review fee. But she admitted that all the details on how the program will apply to the produce department of a grocery store have yet to be worked out.

"We will work with the first produce company that wants to participate and work out the details," she said. "I would guess that there might be some in- store signage instead of front-of-package labeling if the product has no package."

Ms. Krol said that the Smart Choice Program is specifically designed to encourage consumers to eat more of specific food groups, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy.

She said that NSF, the American Society for Nutrition and the panel that developed the program expect this to become the nutritional labeling program of choice for most manufacturers. She added that it is straight forward with transparent nutrition criteria. All information is publicly available on the program's web site, www.smartchoicesprogram.com.

A good number of the major food companies in the United States have already signed up, such as Kellogg's, General Mills and Kraft Foods. Representatives from retailers such as Walmart, Hannaford Bros. and Wegman's were involved in the development of the program, according to information on the Smart Choice web site.

Ms. Krol said that other programs -- most notably the numeric scoring systems -- are based on complicated formulas that an average consumer does not know nor understand. The Smart Choice program very simply relies on the absence of undesirable attributes and the presence of desirable attributes. A product has to have both to qualify, as one cannot cancel out the other. If a product exceeds the limits with regard to any of the negatives, such as total fat, saturated fat or trans fat, no amount of positive attributes will qualify it for inclusion.

Ms. Krol said that the program was developed to help improve America's diet and benefit public health.