Kraft's new labels, to be used on a number of products that contain between two and four servings, will include figures for calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium for the whole contents of the package as well as one serving, something which is missing on many package labels.
The first product to use the new packaging will be Ritz Chips Big Bag but others expected to follow include small-size packs of Nabisco cookies and crackers in Go-Paks! and ready-to-drink beverages such as Capri Sun Refreshers.
The move is the latest response to US government pressure for food producers to use more informative labelling so that people know more about the content of their food, and how much they are eating.
According to Tom Vierhile, executive editor of US-based market researchers Productscan Online, serving descriptions on some food and beverage packages are just not realistic.
For example, he said that some soft drink cans state they contain two servings but only include nutritional information for one, something which can mislead consumers who may only glance at the figures. And in any case, "hardly anyone drinks half a can".
In March this year Dr. Laura Tarantino of the US government's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a letter to food producers saying that the FDA intended to re-evaluate the flexibility of the serving size regulations and warned it would take action against any company disobeying the rules. "The FDA encourages the food industry to review their nutrition information and ensure that the serving size declared is appropriate for the commodity in question," says the letter.
Kraft's senior vice president, Lance Friedman, said that the company's new policy embraced FDA guidelines. "With Kraft 'doing the math' for them, people can instantly see just what they'll be consuming if they choose to eat the entire contents of the package," he said.
Friedman also claims that research shows consumers want the extra information because it "puts the choice of portion size in their hands and gives them the information they need to make sure it's an informed choice".
Kraft's management and shareholders will be hoping he is right in what has been a tough year for America's biggest food producer; whose snack range in particular has been stung by an increasingly health conscious US public keen to kick its snacking habits.
Combined sales of Kraft's biscuits, salted snacks, nuts, fruit snacks and related products account for about 20 per cent of Kraft's total revenues in the US, and turnover dropped by 1.4 per cent in the second quarter of 2004. The company also increased its marketing expenditure in the second quarter by $170 million in an attempt to promote snacking in moderation.
And the company has already made a start. Kraft spokesperson Kris Charles, said that "in less than one year, the company has reduced the fat content in, and made other changes to, about 200 existing, individual products in North America, which account for about 5 per cent of Kraft's annual North American product volume".
Charles said Kraft had reduced calories and saturated fat in its Soft Philadelphia cream cheese spread by 10 per cent and 16 per cent respectively, whilst Kraft String-Ums are now made with two per cent milk to provide calcium with less fat.
Productscan Online's Vierhile said that Kraft, like other food producers in the US, would have to keep this going alongside label changes if it was to retain its consumer base and hold off the lawmakers from the US government.
"Kraft bought into the snacking boom at its height but all of a sudden this has disappeared and now they're desperately trying to make up some ground. Also, if the industry doesn't clean up its own act then the government will do it for them, and if that happens it will be on the government's terms," he said, pointing to the possibility of a national 'snack tax' on junk food.
FDA spokesperson Kimberley Rawlings was more positive about Kraft's labelling policy. "We are pleased to see that the company has taken our advice to heart. This will provide more information to help consumers make an informed choice," she said.
Kraft has said that outside the US, the company will also improve labels on some smaller size packages, including total calorie content and advice on larger packages that the contents should not be consumed all in one go.
The company said that it will continue to work with industry organisations to develop nutrition labels and that it has already made efforts to provide a broad range of portion sizes, including snacks in small packs such as Cracker Barrel Cheese Sticks and Nabisco 100 Calorie Packs.