FDA Plans to Grade Product Health Claims

ByABC News
July 9, 2003, 6:06 PM

July 10 -- Teachers won't be the only ones issuing grades from now on. The Food and Drug Administration plans to start grading health claims on product labels.

The ranking system will assign letter grades ranging from "A" to "D" on each claim a company makes, indicating the quality and strength of the scientific evidence that supports the claim.

"We want to see more of a focus on getting that information out to consumers and we want to see more of a focus on food producers competing based on the health consequences of their products," says FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan.

The measure is intended to encourage the manufacturers of foods, beverages and dietary supplements to present only health claims that are firmly backed by sound science. An FDA spokesperson said the new grades are intended to inform consumers about the products they buy.

But consumers won't see the changes right away. "The new regulations take effect in September, but it'll likely be months after that before consumers see any change in their food labels," reports ABCNEWS correspondent Lisa Stark.

Health Claim Report Card

Under the new plan, an "A" grade will be assigned to claims supported by many well-designed studies. For instance, if a food high in fiber boasts the ability to one's reduce risk of colon cancer, the claim will be given an "A" since the link between fiber and gastrointestinal cancers has been well established by scientific research.

Health claims with "good" but not entirely "conclusive" supporting evidence will be assigned a "B" designation. Label statements made with little or no conclusive evidence to back them up will fall into "C" and "D" categories.

This new proposal does not censor the health claims; rather, it retains claims while noting their strength. The measure might have been prompted by the 1999 court decision, Pearson v. Shalala, which requires the FDA to permit all truthful and non-misleading health information on herbal supplement labels, says Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.