Last month, the FDA released new guidance to food manufacturers and the vending machine industry that temporarily relaxes food labeling requirements in an effort to help minimize the impact of food supply chain disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new policy contains nonbinding recommendations for food labeling and allows for the provisions outlined below.
Minor Formulation Changes Without Required Label Changes
While the FDA encourages manufacturers to be transparent about their products, the agency doesn’t “intend to object if manufacturers make certain temporary and minor formulation changes due to supply chain challenges during this time without making conforming label changes.” To be compliant, manufacturers must follow a few general guidelines when determining whether an undeclared ingredient substitution is allowed:
- The change can’t compromise the safety of the product (eg, introduction of major allergens or other sensitive ingredients).
- The omitted ingredient can’t be a major ingredient (eg, replacing wheat flour with rice flour in a muffin) or a characterizing ingredient (eg, replacing butter with margarine in a product with a “made with real butter” claim).
- The change can’t impact nutrient content or health claims made on the label.
- The change can’t have a significant impact on the nutritional quality of the finished product.
In certain situations, this allows for the reduction, substitution, or omission of major and minor ingredients without corresponding label changes. The FDA provides specific examples of these situations in the full guidance.
Substitutions of Different Varieties of the Same Ingredient
Different varieties of the same ingredient, such as fruits or vegetables, may be freely substituted without label changes. For example, a product listing “jalapeño peppers” in the ingredients list may substitute another variety of pepper, regardless of whether it’s a major or minor ingredient.
Manufacturers also may temporarily substitute fats and oils without label changes if they’re from the same category of fat (animal/vegetable/marine animal) and have a similar fatty acid profile.
Similarly, due to a low supply of bleaching agent, products declaring “bleached flour” as an ingredient may substitute unbleached flour without declaring it in ingredients lists.
Changes in Geographical Origin of Food Products
Products that voluntarily declare the geographical origin of one or all of their ingredients temporarily can procure their ingredients elsewhere without changing the origin claims on their packaging.
Flexibility in Vending Machine Calorie Declarations
Vending machine operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines typically are required by law to provide calorie information for the products they sell. However, due to changes and challenges in the vending industry related to COVID-19, plus the fact many vending machines are feeding essential workers in hospitals, nursing homes, truck stops, and fire stations, vending machine operators temporarily aren’t required to provide calorie information.
While this temporary flexibility in food labeling requirements is intended to last for only the duration of the current public health emergency, the FDA recognizes that additional time may be needed for the food and agriculture supply chain to normalize. Once the emergency is lifted, the FDA intends to evaluate whether an extension of this temporary policy is warranted.
Due to the urgent nature of this guidance, implementation was immediate without a public comment period. However, comments can be submitted at any time on the FDA’s website citing docket number FDA-2020-D-1139.
— Kim Crudele, RDN, is a New Jersey–based dietitian specializing in school nutrition and nutrition communications. She’s the owner of Well Balanced RD, where she does school and corporate wellness consulting. Kim is also a freelance writer concentrating on food, nutrition, health, and agriculture. She’s an avid gardener with dreams of starting her own CSA, a distance runner, and a dog lover. She’s currently pursuing her MA in communications at Northern Arizona University.