- Companies making minor formulation and ingredient changes to their products because of scarcity due to the coronavirus pandemic do not have to make corresponding changes to their labeling, according to new guidance from the FDA.
- This flexibility only applies to small changes. Labeling changes would be required if a substitution occurred that added a commonly allergenic ingredient, if the substituted ingredient made up more than 2% of the weight of the finished product, if a missing ingredient was a defining characteristic of the product or if the change made an impact on health claims or functionality.
- The same guidance document also gives flexibility to operators of 20 or more vending machines. FDA says it will not object if they are unable to provide calorie information on foods that are sold during this time.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the FDA has been responsive to the needs of the food industry as it tries to navigate a new normal where demand is high and manufacturing is continuing at full speed.
New regulations that have come down in the last few months include those allowing eggs and other items intended for foodservice to be sold at retail without having to make labeling changes. While products are getting to consumers in slightly unfamiliar packages, these regulations have helped reallocate food to consumers shopping in grocery stores as restaurant dining rooms and cafeterias have shut down en masse to slow the spread of the virus. A quick explanation to consumers is generally sufficient for them to understand why it's needed.
This regulatory change, however, has already set off warning bells among some consumers. While the FDA likely intended this as an opportunity to help manufacturers keep their factories rolling, the fact that it came out on the Friday before a long holiday weekend and allows for ingredient changes without label changes could make consumers think that regulators — and food manufacturers — have something to hide.
A plain reading of the guidance basically shows that the regulations only allow manufacturers to make swaps that many consumers might not care about or even notice — like unbleached flour for bleached flour, or leaving green peppers out of a quiche that contains four other vegetables. The FDA notes this is necessary because the pandemic has strained supply chains everywhere, and specific ingredients may see shortages as time goes on. This guidance doesn't allow a manufacturer to make big changes, like leaving raisins out of cinnamon raisin bread, or swapping alternative flours for whole wheat in a muffin recipe.
However, these new regulations don't require any public disclosure of these changes. This is the kind of regulation that makes consumers less apt to trust food companies. According to a 2018 study from the Center for Food Integrity, only a third of consumers said they strongly agreed the food they ate was safe, and only 44% had a positive opinion of food manufacturing. In 2019, three out of four consumers said they would switch brands to one that provides more in-depth product information beyond what's on the label, according to a study by Label Insight and the Food Industry Association.
As more food companies have embraced transparency, opinions have shifted somewhat. And as consumers are now much more aware of the dedicated work that is going into making their food, 78% said they are confident that the food they are buying is safe, according to a recent study from the International Food Information Council.
While manufacturers cannot control the fact that the FDA put out the regulations on a day that consumers would be less likely to be aware of them, they can control the way they are utilized. Instead of just making a swap in the factory, manufacturers could publicize the changes on social media, their brand website, by information displayed at the point of sale or through stickers on packaging alerting consumers of a potential change.
Consumers are more likely to be understanding about changes as long as they are informed. And highly sensitive consumers, including those with food allergies, will continue to place trust in the brands that take care to let them know that manufacturing practices during the pandemic will keep them safe — or that temporary changes may result in new risks.