Many labelers have not yet initiated steps to revise labels despite the fact that FDA requirements for trans fat and food allergen labeling are less than six months away.
Nearly all FDA-regulated food products labeled for sale in the US must comply with the new laws, which come into force on January 1, 2006, and some industry bodies are concerned that mid-size firms are not yet prepared.
"Some of the largest companies in the US have admitted in conversations that they will not have trans fat values on all product labels by the compliance date," Karen Duester, president of www.foodlabels.com/ Food Consulting Company told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"However, they are diligently working to get the labels in order as soon as possible. From our marketing projects, we know that some of the smallest companies are not yet aware of what is required for trans fat labeling."
One problem, according to Duester, is that many companies don't dedicate personnel to following changes in food labeling regulations. "They are just now learning about the upcoming deadline for trans fat and allergen requirements because of alerts late breaking industry press coverage," she added.
Trans fat is formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine, a process that increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods. But the substance has been found to contribute to elevated cholesterol levels and can lead to coronary artery disease.
The new law, which is causing panic, also presents an opportunity. The new requirements, which will motivate food manufacturers to modify their formulas to cut out trans fats, will direct them to the growing trend of healthy food purchasing. Products with ingredients that contain lower or no trans fatty acids are already gaining consumer recognition, and the new labeling regime will simply reinforce this trend.
There is evidence to support this. US sales of products labeled "no trans fat" increased 12 percent to $6.4 billion for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 2, 2004, compared with the previous 52-week period, according to New York-based AC-Nielsen.
Oil suppliers for example have been busy with new oils and oil blends that cut trans fat in foods. Anticipating both the regulation deadline and growing consumer awareness of trans fat, suppliers of oils including palm, soybean, canola and sunflower seed are increasingly emphasizing how their oils may help grain-based foods manufacturers reduce or even eliminate trans fat in their products.
These alternative oils look set to greatly increase their market share over the next decade. Food manufacturers are already jumping on the no-trans fats bandwagon; Frito-Lay, for instance, already discloses the trans fat content of its snack foods and the company says that such content is zero for its Ruffles and Lay's potato chips, Rold Gold pretzel snacks and Fritos corn chips.
The PepsiCo division also switched some time ago to corn oil to cook its Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos products to eliminate trans fats from those snacks.
The Food Consulting Company, which offers firms compliance tips on upcoming legislation and label changes, would clearly like more companies to be as aware of the opportunities presented here, but also recognizes some of the difficulties that companies are facing.
"When big companies are lagging behind, it seems to be due to the number of labels requiring change," said Duester.
"In addition to trans fat labeling requirements, all companies are taking steps to comply with allergen labeling requirements due the same date."
There are also a few objections over the implementation of the new law. Nutritionists point out that although palm oil might have no trans fat content, it has a higher saturated fat content. There are worries that some food companies will simply replace trans fats with other kinds of oils that aren't exactly bursting with nutritional or health-giving properties.
Nonetheless, the January 1, 2006 requirement is coming into force and will affect nearly all FDA regulated food labels. Not since 1993, when compliance for the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 became mandatory, have so many labels required revision.
Food companies must comply, and the winners are likely to be those that see the change as an opportunity to tap the health market.