Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! If you haven’t seen it, there’s a short new video out about the history of USDA’s trove of botanical fruit paintings. It’s fascinating and oddly soothing! Hat tip to Marion Nestle at Food Politics for flagging it.
HBO cameo: If you’re not yet a paid subscriber, you missed Tuesday’s newsletter all about how food safety got featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – a segment that featured my reporting at Politico quite a bit. The segment is well-done and worth a watch – it was up to 2.4 million views last time I checked!
Tuesday’s edition also took a look at the House speaker race, the farm bill and why candy makers are calling on the FDA to jump into the food additives fight. Subscribe today to avoid missing future coverage!
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Alright, let’s get to it –
A fresh chapter for food at FDA
Jim Jones, the new deputy commissioner for human foods at FDA, on Thursday issued a statement outlining the FDA’s three top priorities for the food side of the agency as it works to reorganize the entire program.
The statement lists three key areas of focus: reducing foodborne illnesses, decreasing diet-related chronic diseases and a greater focus on the safety of food chemicals.
On the surface, this might not seem earth shattering – and it’s not – but to me, this signals that FDA is trying to be clear about how it will focus its time and limited resources as the agency is under intense scrutiny to better protect the public on a variety of fronts. (If you’re new around here and haven’t been following the saga of FDA under fire, this week’s John Oliver segment offers a good window into how we got here, just with a lot of swear words!)
This is also a clear elevation of the agency’s work on food chemicals, including food additives, packaging and contaminants like PFAS and heavy metals – a side of the foods program that’s often taken a back seat to more imminent threats like foodborne pathogens. Top FDA officials had said more was coming on chemicals – even before California banned four food additives – and this statement cements that direction.
A new tone: From what I can tell, the FDA is trying to turn the page and start a new chapter. Jones hasn’t even been on the job for a full month (he started his new post Sept. 24) and he’s already doing things differently. On Thursday, he held an hour-long Zoom call and took questions from roughly a dozen reporters on a wide range of topics on the record. This might not sound unusual, but I can’t remember FDA ever doing this type of thing. Top officials hold press calls from time to time, but it’s usually around a big piece of news the agency is making, not a chance to vibe-check on various policy issues. I hope the agency makes this a regular practice (though I’m sure it made plenty of FDA lawyers and career staff quite nervous). It was refreshing.
I learned a fair amount from this press confab. Here are a few things that stood out to me:
FDA sees progress cutting sodium: For the better part of a decade, the FDA has been working on voluntary sodium reduction goals as a way to nudge food makers to cut salt across the food supply. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it’s been a long road and we still don’t know if FDA’s voluntary strategy is working.
Well, Jones told reporters Thursday the agency actually does have some data that suggests its approach is working.
“The preliminary data – it’s not complete and it won’t be complete for sometime – but the preliminary data we’re getting is that we’re making progress across numerous food categories,” Jones said. “As a lifelong regulator, I’m always suspicious of voluntary goals, but if they can work you want to go with them. So far, the evidence that we have is that they are working so we plan to continue to move in that direction.”
Jones emphasized it would still be a while before the agency has comprehensive data, but noted that the initial signs of progress have been encouraging: “It does give us confidence that having a second goal is a worthwhile endeavor for us to take,” he said. (So far, FDA has only finalized two and a half year goals that are easier to meet; health advocates have pressed for longer-term, more aggressive targets).
Jones did also say this: “If we get to the point that we realize it’s not working, then everything’s back on the table.”
Wrong direction on chronic disease: Jones was pretty blunt in his assessment of diet-related chronic diseases in the U.S. “They’re moving in the wrong direction,” he said. “We need to turn this around.” Jones argued that it would take a broad effort across multiple government agencies, civil society and the food industry, but pointed to some of FDA’s efforts (like front-of-pack labeling) as having “the potential to move the needle in the right direction.”
Structure breeds culture: Jones was asked how he plans to change the culture of FDA, which has long been seen as insular and overly cautious (to the point of inaction) – important decisions about health and safety can take several years, even decades – but he argued that these problems are in part a result of the decentralized structure and lack of clear decision-making authority that’s plagued the agency. He signaled that he is now the final arbiter on key decisions – hopefully bringing clarity and enabling action.
“I strongly believe that culture comes from the top. I’m very committed to creating a positive, healthy work culture here,” Jones said. “I think the way in which the structure was created created some of the cultural challenges. I will have to be purposeful about it, we have to unlearn some things, but the structure is going to help that tremendously.”
Trust comes from performance: At one point, Jones was asked about how the agency can build back some public trust – a lot of people just don’t trust FDA right now (or anymore). Instead of fancy communications strategies, Jones suggested FDA just needs to handle things better.
“At the end of the day, performance is what’s going to restore confidence,” Jones said. “I accept that’s how I will be evaluated. I also understand that spending time with the critics of the program…is hugely important.” He said he’d already been on the Hill meeting with members of Congress, and is meeting with state leaders, USDA officials, and the like.
“The point of these conversations is not just to build goodwill,” added Jones. “It’s to learn from them about how we can do a better job.”
The big picture: As I’ve written before, just about everyone I know is rooting for Jones – and the new FDA human foods programs – to succeed. I have certainly not been shy about reporting on the agency’s missteps throughout the years – and there have been many! – but it would be nice to write about other things.
What I’m reading
Drug companies are exploring weight-loss shots for kids as young as six (Bloomberg). “Pharmaceutical companies are looking to get buzzy weight-loss shots approved for younger and younger patients,” reports Madison Muller. “Eli Lilly & Co. is planning to test its diabetes drug Mounjaro for patients six and up with obesity, according to a person familiar with the trial who didn’t want to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Novo Nordisk A/S is also testing Saxenda — an older and less powerful version of its blockbuster drugs Ozempic and Wegovy — in kids as young as six.”
Federal spending on SNAP expected to decline in FY 2024 as emergency allotments phased out (Food Policy Bites). “As most states have phased out emergency allotments, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person has started to decline significantly,” per this new analysis from the Food & Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. “In July 2023, the ratio of average over maximum benefits dropped to 62% as most households no longer qualified for maximum benefits. Even at this ratio, the average monthly benefit remains higher than the pre-COVID era. It is likely that federal spending on SNAP will total $112 billion in FY 2023, a roughly $8 billion decline from its peak in 2022. …Total federal spending on SNAP (including administrative costs) is projected to decline further in FY 2024 to $95 billion, down $17 billion from FY 2023.”
Nestlé is developing products to accompany weight-loss drugs like Ozempic— amid fears they’ll eat into food sales (Forbes). “Food giant Nestlé on Thursday said it was working on products to accompany weight-loss drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro, as the food industry evolves in response to the soaring popularity of the appetite-killing drugs amid fears they will dampen demand and erode bottom lines,” reports Robert Hart. (In case you missed it, I wrote last week about how Wall Street is kind of freaking out about Ozempic.)
Tufts University launches new food is medicine institute (Tufts Now). The Food is Medicine Institute at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University formally launched in Boston on Wednesday. The institute “establishes a university-wide initiative aimed at transforming health care through scalable food-based interventions such as: medically tailored meals and prescriptions for produce; nutrition education for doctors; and clinical care, electronic health record, and reimbursement pathways for nutrition-based tools to help treat or prevent diet-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers and complications during pregnancy, per Tufts. Speakers included the Institute’s director, Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts; Brent Ling of Wholesome Wave; Pam Schwartz of Kaiser Permanente; Nira Goren of Google Health; Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman of the Bipartisan Policy Center and several pre-recorded remarks from lawmakers and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Sweetgreen makes the switch to extra virgin olive oil (Restaurant Business News). This caught my eye because of just how much criticism I’ve seen of seed oils all over social media – I have to wonder if we’ll see more of this: “Sweetgreen announced it will be using extra virgin olive oil exclusively to cook proteins, grains and veggies for its warm bowls, salads and sides,” reports Patricia Cobe. “The switch goes into effect Tuesday at the fast casual’s more than 200 locations nationwide…the chain is exploring avocado oil in certain menu applications.”
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