FDA Relaxes Food Labeling Requirements During COVID-19 Pandemic

The Federal Drug Administration announced temporary changes to labeling requirements as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic to help food manufacturers and vending machine operators. Companies will be allowed to use existing labels when products are altered due to shortages or supply chain disruptions.

“Our goal is to provide regulatory flexibility, where fitting, to help minimize the impact of supply chain disruptions associated with the current COVID-19 pandemic on product availability,” the FDA said in their Guidance Document.  Some examples of changes that could use the same labels include a substitution of spices, leaving out a vegetable when other vegetables are in the product, a change between canola and sunflower oil, or a switch from bleached flour to unbleached flour.

An FDA update said the substitutions should generally be less than 2 percent of the finished product, not cause adverse health effects, not be a major or characterizing ingredient, and not affect nutrient content or health claims.

“The food industry has informed us that there are supply disruptions or shortages for some ingredients and, as a result, manufacturers will need to make formulation changes, such as omissions or substitutions of minor ingredients, in the manufacturing of foods, the guidance document says. It says officially changing the labels would likely slow production and distribution of food.

“This guidance was the FDA recognizing that there could be some minor changes that do not impact food safety,” Betsy Booren senior vice president at the Consumer Brands Association told the Washington Post. “To change a label takes upwards of two years for a food company — doing the analysis, sending products to the printer — all that takes time. The FDA is allowing digital disclosures, stickers and smart labels.”

The Washington Post reported that some allergy advocacy groups say the guidance could cause complications for those with food allergies who will be less confident about food content and those trying to choose healthier options.

The FDA has issued other rule changes or eased requirements during the pandemic addressing nutrition labeling, menu labeling at fast food chains, and packaging eggs. This new guidance relaxing food labels also allows vending machine operators to omit calorie information on the items sold. Vending machine companies are adjusting for less use in workplaces or schools and more in medical facilities and police stations since they are low-contact delivery options. This change allows them to more easily switch out available options.

“In general, FDA’s guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities,” the guidance document says. “Instead, guidances describe our current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations, unless specific regulatory or statutory requirements are cited.” The FDA suggests using stickers or making changes publicly available instead of changing the labels.

The FDA said the policy is intended to stay until the end of the public health emergency, but said they intend to consider an extension to give food and agricultural companies time to get the supply chain back to normal.