Bowing to a public relations effort gone awry, General Mills on Tuesday said it plans to drop the "Smart Choices" label from its products after the Food and Drug Administration and others said the label misled consumers.
Designed largely by food companies and rolled out this summer, the label was billed as a simple way for consumers to find healthy foods in supermarket aisles.
Yet when the label began appearing on Froot Loops and high-fat mayonnaise, consumer groups cried foul.
General Mills planned to place the label on up to 67 items, including Chocolate Lucky Charms, but so far had only placed it on Cheerios, Green Giant vegetables and Fiber One Bars, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The program's demise is a major embarrassment for the food companies that created it, with several announcing last week that they would discontinue its use.
When it started, the Smart Choices label drew major food companies like Tyson Foods, ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Kraft, Unilever and General Mills, a group that pledged some $1.5 million to the program, according to Forbes. The label, some two years in the making, was supposed to help consumers who struggle to understand the more detailed nutrition labels found on the sides of most packaged foods. Numerous studies have shown that many consumers don't understand or don't have time to read the labels.
Paid for by industry
Controversy surrounded the program even before it was completed this summer. A prominent member of its board, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, resigned over what he saw as undue influence from the food companies.
"It was paid for by industry and when industry put down its foot and said this is what we're doing, that was it, end of story," he told the New York Times for a story about the program.
In a "Dear Industry" letter released last week, the FDA said it was closely studying the program. The same letter reminded food companies that labels must follow guidelines or they risked incurring fines.
The warning set off a round of media coverage that zeroed in on Kellogg's, which had already begun printing the Smart Choices label on boxes of Froot Loops. The package was ridiculed in an ABC news segment, and further media coverage through last week was followed by an announcement on Friday that the Smart Choices program was voluntarily suspending any expansion of the label but would not prohibit food companies from using it on packages already carrying the label.
Some food companies, including Pepsi and Kellogg's, announced at the same time that they would back out of the program.
The program's demise has cast serious doubt on not only the food companies' efforts, but also the nutritionists who teamed up with the Smart Choices board to develop the program.
Smart Choices board president Eileen T. Kennedy, who also serves as dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, helped design the program, only to see Tufts ask that its name be removed from the Smart Choices website. She defended the program to a New York Times reporter earlier this month: "You're rushing around, you're trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal. So Froot Loops is a better choice."
General Mills "continues to support the development of a simple, uniform front-of-pack labeling program that could promote informed food choices and help consumers make healthier diet decisions," the company said in a statement.
General Mills, which sells some of the leading consumer food brands, including Cheerios, Nature Valley, Green Giant, Pillsbury, Old El Paso and Betty Crocker, recorded sales of $15.9 billion in its most recent year.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329