A game of chicken with SNAP – and the U.S. economy

The House passed a debt ceiling bill with expanded work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Now what? FDA goes to bat for front-of-pack food labels. Plus, food tech on Capitol Hill.

President Joe Biden sitting at the resolute desk in the Oval Office, signs H.J. Res. 7, “Relating to a National Emergency Declared by the President on March 13, 2020” terminating the National Emergency concerning COVID-19, Monday, April 10, 2023, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)s

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Alright, let’s get to it –



Today, in Food Fix: 

– The House passed a debt ceiling bill with expanded SNAP work requirements. Now what? 

– FDA goes to bat for front-of-pack food labels

– Food tech on Capitol Hill


A game of chicken with SNAP – and the U.S. economy

The big news in Washington this week was that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) managed to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling, along with spending cuts and expanded work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other safety-net programs. This was notable, of course, because McCarthy has a slim majority and an unruly caucus.

On Wednesday, the bill passed the House 217–215 along strictly party lines after some last-minute changes, including a move to instate some expanded work requirements sooner. 

So, now what? 

Well, the conventional wisdom is that this move puts some pressure on President Joe Biden to give a little on his firm stance that he will not negotiate on raising the debt limit and Congress should raise the limit without conditions. So far, however, there is no indication that Biden has changed his position.

“If you reward hostage taking, it simply repeats,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Biden ally, told POLITICO, in this mainbar on the standoff Thursday. “I don’t expect the president to now say, ‘Oh my gosh, you passed a bill with two votes that imposes draconian cuts across programs that most Americans would never support. Now I have to come and give you whatever you want.’”

Standstill: For the time being, the game of chicken is still on. The latest thinking is that the country’s borrowing limit will need to be raised by late July, so there’s some time on the clock to stand off with the full faith and credit of the United States government (and the whole U.S. economy) on the line. Small stakes, really.

You’re about to hear more about food stamps. I reported Tuesday that Democrats were leaning in on SNAP in their messaging in the debt limit fight and I’ve noticed this come up more this week: “Those kinds of Democratic attacks — targeting the GOP’s proposed cuts to popular social programs — will likely make up much of Biden’s messaging going forward,” per POLITICO.

“Though White House officials remain nervous about how and when the standoff will end, Biden’s more politically minded advisers see the House bill as an early gift to a re-election campaign that will rely heavily on contrasting Biden’s agenda with the goals of the GOP’s conservative wing, two people familiar with the campaign planning said,” the story continued. “Still, battleground Republicans argue that it’s Democrats, not their own party, that will face backlash if they keep sitting idle.”

Truly a political game of chicken.

I asked Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) at the NAAJ meeting this week if the Democratic party sees the SNAP debate as a winning issue politically, and she did not hold back. 

“I don’t know how taking $6 a day away from a mom and her kids, or a senior citizen, or a person with disabilities, or a veteran is a winning strategy for Republicans,” Stabenow said. “It’s just mean.”

House Republicans broadly argue that stricter work requirements for programs like SNAP make sense, especially in a tight labor market.

“We’re really helping those folks to be able to realize the American Dream, which is to be able to get one of these great paying jobs that are open and available today,” House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson told Agri-Pulse re: the work requirements in the bill, which he voted for. “There’s lots of them out there, more than any time in history,” said Thompson. “People just may need a little bit of assistance with some employment training.”

About those savings: While we’re talking dollars and cents, the House GOP bill is projected to raise the debt limit by $1.5 trillion while saving $4.8 trillion over a decade – which is not insubstantial – but as I’ve pointed out before, expanding SNAP work requirements just doesn’t save that much money in the grand scheme of things.

The debt limit bill expands the age range of so-called able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) who must work or be in training 20 hours per week or they can only receive three months of benefits every three years. (This is what folks call work requirements or the time limit.) Though it would certainly affect a broad range of individuals, it wouldn’t apply to the core beneficiaries of SNAP: kids, seniors, and folks with disabilities.

Economist Claudia Sahm penned an interesting op-ed on work requirements in the bill over at Bloomberg: 

“In short, the combined budgetary savings from the additional work requirements would be minuscule, amounting to rounding errors on the federal debt that exceeds $30 trillion,” Sahm wrote. “The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it would only be about $10 billion per year on average, or 0.5% of discretionary outlays. But including the requirements would mean real hardship for many people. Some 1.5 million adults would lose federally funded Medicaid, and 275,000 would lose food stamps from the expanded work requirements.”

By the numbers: For context, there are approximately 41 million people currently on SNAP. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates 275,000 individuals would lose benefits under this change. The changes to SNAP would save $11 billion over a decade – a tiny fraction when you consider the program doled out nearly $120 billion in benefits in 2022 alone. (The vast majority of the House bill’s projected savings would come from a cap on overall government spending, something that’s also fiercely opposed by Democrats).

DOA: Of course, the usual disclaimer applies here: There isn’t political support in the Senate for stepping up work requirements in SNAP, not in the farm bill and not in the debt ceiling, but the program is going to be inside of this standoff for a while. 


FDA goes to bat for front-of-pack food labels

FDA commissioner Robert Califf in a speech on Thursday touted the benefit of implementing front-of-pack labels for food, something the FDA is working on as part of the Biden administration’s strategy on nutrition, hunger and health.

“I’m a radical enthusiast about that and we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen,” Califf said during remarks at a virtual sugar-reduction summit hosted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

“As a common sense measure, it just makes sense to me that people ought to be able to see what they’re buying on the front of the package, but there are substantial forces against it,” Califf added. “And many concerns about the First Amendment, which we have to take into account as we carefully approach this issue.”

Substantial forces: By this, I presume Califf is referring to large swaths of the food industry with legions of lawyers ready to raise First Amendment and other challenges to any approach that demonizes food products (which, of course, is kind of the point for public health advocates who want to change purchasing behavior). Surely this fight will simmer for the next several years, though it’s also important to remember the food industry isn’t nearly as unified as it used to be.

Califf skips Nutrition Facts: Califf also admitted during his summit appearance that he doesn’t really use back-of-pack Nutrition Facts labels, one of the FDA’s most prized food policy wins. 

“I don’t pretend to be a careful shopper,” Califf said. “I’ll admit that my wife is a much more careful shopper than I am. It’s unlikely I am going to turn the package around and read what’s on the back before I buy it, but if it’s sitting on the front of the package, I think it’s highly likely that people like me, and I think I’m pretty representative … are going to pay more attention and notice it.”


Food tech on Capitol Hill

A bunch of food tech leaders were on Capitol Hill this week in a first-of-its-kind food innovation fly-in focused on the farm bill. 

For the uninitiated: A fly-in is where folks come to Washington to hold meetings with lawmakers. They happen constantly – especially now that the farm bill cycle is in full swing.

Leaders from Eat Just (the parent company of JUST Egg and GOOD Meat), Finless Foods, Impossible Foods, Next Gen Foods, Oatly, the Plant Based Food Association and the Good Food Institute (GFI), which promotes alternative proteins, were all part of the event. The confab culminated in a reception at the Consumer Technology Association’s Innovation House, a row house event space just a stone’s throw from the Capitol where the tech industry often gathers.

The food was curated by DC Vegan, a local vegan catering company, and featured plant-based burgers, chicken nuggets and oat ice cream – fare that was gobbled up by Democrats and Republicans alike. I talked to a couple GOP staffers at the event who labeled themselves “skeptical” of all of this, but even they admitted some of the food was pretty tasty.

Who’s who: Three members of Congress attended the reception: Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas). 

“This was the first time these organizations, which have different business strategies, products and manufacturing processes, have come together in Washington, D.C. to raise awareness for diversified, innovative agricultural tools and foods that utilize technological advances for the benefit of human and planetary health,” the groups said in a statement this week. 

The groups are urging Congress and the administration to “pay special attention to this sector as an engine for solving some of our nation’s most urgent issues.” Specifically, they want more federal investment in alternative proteins research and consumer education and a regulatory “ecosystem” that doesn’t hamper innovation, among other things.

Finless Foods, which is working on both plant-based and cell-cultivated seafood alternatives, also hosted a Congressional lunch briefing this week with Andrew Noyes of Eat Just, Jessica Almy of the Good Food Institute, and Alex Smith of the Breakthrough Institute, moderated by Megan Poinski of Industry Dive. 


What I’m reading

Danone invests in animal-free dairy startup Imagindairy via corporate ventures arm (AgFunderNews). “Danone’s corporate venture arm Danone Manifesto Ventures has taken a minority stake in Imagindairy, an Israeli startup making ‘animal-free’ dairy proteins via precision fermentation (using microbes instead of cows),” reports Elaine Watson. “While Danone is heavily invested in plant-based dairy through brands such as Silk, Alpro and So Delicious, this is its first move into the animal-free dairy space, whereby firms engineer fungi or yeast to make dairy proteins such as whey and casein.”

USDA should ban ‘low carbon’ beef claims (Environmental Working Group). The Environmental Working Group this week petitioned USDA to “prohibit meat producers from claiming their beef is ‘low carbon’ and to require independent verification of other climate claims on food,” per a blog post from enviro group EWG. The petition also “urges the USDA to require food companies to disclose their carbon emissions on product labels, much the way calorie counts are included on food labels.”

USDA proposes declaring Salmonella an adulterant in breaded, stuffed raw chicken (Food Safety News). This week the USDA took another step “to make the products it regulates safer by banning some poultry products from being contaminated with a pathogen that causes foodborne illness in people,” writes Dan Flynn. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed a determination to declare Salmonella an adulterant in breaded, stuffed raw chicken products when they exceed a very low level of Salmonella contamination. “The FSIS sees the announcement as a significant first step that builds on the USDA agency’s proposed regulatory framework to reduce Salmonella infections linked to poultry products,” Flynn added.

Bud Light fumbles, but experts say inclusive ads will stay (Associated Press). “Bud Light may have fumbled its attempt to broaden its customer base by partnering with a transgender influencer,” reports AP. “But experts say inclusive marketing is simply good business — and it’s here to stay.‘A few years from now, we will look back on this “controversy” with the same embarrassment that we feel when we look back at “controversies” from the past surrounding things like interracial couples in advertising,’ said Sarah Reynolds, the chief marketing officer for the human resources platform HiBob, who identifies as queer.”

Work continues on the Human Foods Program proposal (FDA). Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock, who is leading the change management group for the reorganization of the FDA’s foods program, emailed staff this week with an update. Woodcock wrote that the group began by discussing strengths and weaknesses for the foods program at the agency. “The conclusions were unanimous: our dedicated staff and unmatched expertise are our greatest assets … There was a good deal of agreement on the challenges, too. First and foremost, insufficient personnel, financial, and information technology resources, and a constantly growing workload are driving the need for the future [human foods program (HFP)] to better prioritize activities through a transparent, centralized process.”

The battle over refrigerating butter: ‘Enough Is Enough’ (Wall Street Journal). This is a fun, butter pun-filled story from Kristina Peterson. There’s even a regulatory angle here that I was unaware of! Strong opinions abound in the piece, including this: “Unsalted butter on toast should be a felony.”


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