froot loop“Smart Choice”–where’s the hole in this logic?Zanastardust/FlickrYou don’t need to be a nutritionist with an advanced degree to know that Froot Loops only qualifies as a “Smart Choice” on Planet Kellogg’s. But as the NYT told us over the weekend, if you are a nutritionist at a prestigious university’s nutrition school, you just might think it does. I give you Eileen Kennedy, President of Tufts University’s (up to this point) well-regarded School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and also board president of Big Food’s “Smart Choices” food label inititative. As Dr. Kennedy explained to the NYT:

[T]he program’s criteria were based on government dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards.

She said the program was also influenced by research into consumer behavior. That research showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them.

“The checkmark means the food item is a ‘better for you’ product, as opposed to having an x on it saying ‘Don’t eat this,’ ” Dr. Kennedy said. “Consumers are smart enough to deduce that if it doesn’t have the checkmark, by implication it’s not a ‘better for you’ product. They want to have a choice. They don’t want to be told ‘You must do this.’ ”

Dr. Kennedy… defended the products endorsed by the program, including sweet cereals. She said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.

“Smart” by the way, is not the same as “Healthy.” Big Food is trying to be reasonable here. But in the end, it’s just weaselly business as usual. After all, basing the label “on government dietary guidelines” is just about the lowest bar you could find. Those would be the guideslines that allow you to eat Froot Loops and M&Ms for breakfast, a cheeseburger for lunch and 3 slices of pepperoni pizza for dinner. And as for Froot Loops being “better than other things,” El Dragon of Fair Food Fight agreed via Twitter that, if nothing else, it beats “a bowl of sugar and a punch in the face.” So true, El Dragon. So true.

But this story goes beyond the laughable list of foods that qualified for the industry’s “Smart Choices” label. There are hints here that perhaps, just perhaps, the industry has finally gone too far. We get a sense of that from some of the NYT’s reporting. According to a letter sent jointly by the FDA and the USDA to the program’s directors:

[T]he agencies would be concerned if the Smart Choices label “had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

And who among FDA officials should get to weigh in on this? None other than Mike Taylor, the new FDA “advisor” on food safety. As a former Monsanto exec and a fan of food irradiation, Taylor has many in progressive circles on hair-trigger alert. But here, he sounds like someone with a healthy, if diplomatic, skepticism of Big Food’s intentions:

“What we don’t want to do is have front-of-package information that in any way is based on cherry-picking the good and not disclosing adequately the components of a product that may be less good,” Mr. Taylor said.

All well and good. But then he drops the bombshell:

“We’re taking a hard look at these programs and we want to independently look at what would be the sound criteria and the best way to present this information,” Mr. Taylor said.

That sounds awfully like someone who’s laying the groundwork for a government labeling process. This is exactly what the food industry was trying to short-circuit. But they over-reached and let their manic business sense get in the way of their horse-sense. Indeed, it’s hard to see the “Smart Choices” process as anything other than classic groupthink (I’ll be generous and dispense with accusations of moral culpability). How else could a bunch of well-educated, presumably perfectly “reasonable” people start a process that ends with Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Puffs as “Smart Choices”?

Meanwhile, Marion Nestle noted that the FDA just filed an announcement in the Federal Register of an official Internet survey on food lablels. As she put it:

What is this about?  Let me take a wild guess: Health claims?  Smart Choices labels?  Anything that makes people think highly processed foods are good for them?  Or distracts from the Nutrition Facts panel?

Now, the government, which has already given us fatally flawed dietary guidelines, isn’t necessarily going to follow through with a new label or, if it did, deliver an acceptable “health” label — at least not without significant involvement with good food advocates. But now with Big Food having shown 1) a willingness to put a unified health label on its products and 2) a clear inability to create one that serves anything other than its bottom line, the FDA suddenly finds itself empowered to follow through.

What surprises me in all this is Big Food’s gaping political blind spot. Was it hubris or incompetence that led them to overlook the possibility of a backlash over labeling sugary cereal a “Smart Choice”? I suppose it doesn’t matter. But what’s becoming clear is that the “Smart Choices” program looks like it’s turning out to be a very dumb move.