- - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fortunately, nobody held their breath waiting on this. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration published a proposed rule to regulate the labels on breath mints, changing a 1993 standard. Now, in 2014, the FDA is withdrawing that proposal as outdated. And they’re issuing a new one, a 145-page regulation on how to label breath mints. The comment period closed Aug. 1.

What took them so long? The answer gives insight into the whole red tape monster of the federal government.

Obviously, the FDA recognized the monumental significance of their breath mint decision and spared neither time nor expense of taxpayer money in reviewing every aspect.

The FDA figured out that different breath mints have different RACC’s, making it tricky to standardize labels in the way originally intended by the bureaucrats. RACC is “reference amount customarily consumed,” or what consumers sometimes call a “serving size.”

But breath mints are not of uniform size. So rather than requiring labels to list calories, sugar content, etc., on a basis such as “per gram,” the FDA is finally settling on having it listed “per unit,” meaning “one mint.” This makes sense because a Tic Tac is tinier than a Certs or BreathSaver. The FDA now agrees, noting that a 0.4-gram breath mint may have “the same breath-freshening capacity as larger mints” that are 2.0-grams.

But the FDA went far deeper, exploring the public health issues of breath mints.

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The regulation included input from the FDA’s Obesity Working Group, undoubtedly due to the well-known connection between breath mints and American waistlines. As they noted, “the U.S. population is eating larger portion sizes than it did in the 1970s and 1980s.” Left unmentioned was whether breath mints are involved in that trend.

An Internet search drew a blank when looking for “super-sized breath mints.” But undoubtedly this consultation about portion sizes was one factor in the 17 years it took to finalize the regulation.

FDA heard also from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which shared tons of data about poor dietary habits, body-mass index, and that 68 percent of American adults are overweight and 34 percent are obese as well. Too many calories and too little exercise, said the CDC. But no specifics on breath mints.

The FDA cited the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid and statistics about portion sizes at restaurants and in supermarket food packaging. None of it mentioned breath mints, however.

The Federal Trade Commission was consulted and responded that labels should aid consumers in “comparing foods of different portion sizes.” Undoubtedly, smart shoppers might wish to know which breath mint, gram per gram, has the most sugar or some other ingredient. A “per mint” label denies them this all-important comparative data for this big decision.

Perhaps some study has concluded that consuming high-calorie breath mints is a leading cause of big stomachs. That’s probably why the Center for Science in the Public Interest weighed in with comments complaining that people consume more numbers of small items than of large items and therefore may lose track of calories.

Researchers sent in comments that had to be reviewed, describing whether people eat more soup if bowls are bigger and more popcorn if it’s fresh or stale. They cited studies on whether consumers could calculate the amount of carbohydrates in half a bagel when the listed serving size was a full bagel.

In its thoroughness, the FDA proposal includes references to carbonated beverages, potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, canned fruit, canned chili, canned ravioli, packages of shelled nuts, iced tea, frozen meals, energy drinks, 5-inch pizzas, dairy beverages, pre-packaged lunches, pre-packaged breakfasts, cookies, crackers, sandwiches, microwave popcorn, muffins, pastries, candy bars and more. But no studies specific to breath mints. That’s just as well, lest someone seek a federal grant to launch one.

The rule discusses literature and research on whether people eat more or less when told a food is healthful. It discusses guilt over eating the whole thing. It explores the math of 200 percent of the RACC vs. 300 percent or 400 percent or maybe 75 to 150 percent as the basis for revising the labeling requirements.

The FDA discussed whether a label should have one column of nutrition information or two columns — to enable “per serving” listing as well as “per package” totals. Or “per mint” in place of “per serving.”

The proposal discusses whether items are packaged or wrapped as a group and whether there is additional wrapping of each item to be consumed.

Perhaps most importantly, the FDA proposes “to redesignate § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(F) as § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(E), redesignate §101.9(b)(2)(i)(G) as § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(F), redesignate § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(H) as § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(G), and redesignate § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(I) as § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(H), because the proposed rule would remove current § 101.9(b)(2)(i)(E).”

There is no mention of how many federal workers took part in the 17-year effort or how many man hours they devoted, nor at what cost. At one time, the FDA estimated it would cost the industry only $500 per label for each breath mint label they must re-design. It sounds like they’re getting off a lot cheaper than the taxpayers did.

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