Hello, Happy Friday and welcome to the 20th edition of Food Fix. I continue to be delighted by all the love for this newsletter. Thank you for opening, reading, and sharing. As I keep saying: I’m so glad you value this work, because I did quit my day job to do it!
Today’s newsletter is coming to you later than usual because I spent the morning with the growing ranks of women in journalism covering food and agriculture in an off-the-record meeting with a lawmaker on Capitol Hill.
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Food Fix in the news: In case you missed it, Food Politics featured my reporting on how brutally honest folks have been regarding whath needs to change at FDA. Today, I’m appearing on Fox Business around 5 p.m. ET to discuss the ongoing infant formula situation.
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– Commissioner Califf pledges FDA focus on food, citing declining U.S. life expectancy
– FDA pushes for supply chain authority over formula
– USDA releases plan for cutting Salmonella in poultry
– Food prices rise, again
– First guilty pleas in school-meals fraud case
Commissioner Califf pledges FDA focus on food
FDA Commissioner Robert Califf showed up in downtown Washington on Wednesday ready to speak at the National Food Policy Conference, even if he acknowledged being a little tired. (A combination of late-night travel and hosting his young grandchildren overnight, he said – we’ve all been there!)
It was notable that Califf was even at the conference. The last confirmed FDA commissioner to speak at that event was back in 2018 during the Trump administration. Then commissioner Scott Gottlieb made waves by declaring that the agency was sticking to its guns on sodium reduction, something that public health advocates cheered, even if they were a little surprised.
“There remains no single more effective public health action related to nutrition than the reduction of sodium in the diet,” Gottlieb said at the time. (As a refresher on the many twists and turns on the FDA’s long sodium-reduction journey, skip to Chapter 4 of a piece I wrote earlier this year.)
‘F’ in FDA: While notable, it makes sense that Califf would speak at this event right now. His agency has been under fire for much of the year for problems on the foods side of the house, largely due to the ongoing infant formula situation (which, by the way, is starting to pick up on social media again.) I’ve reported previously on the long-running joke among agency officials that the “F” in FDA is silent. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) recently called on the agency to “put the ‘F’ back in FDA.” In his speech on Wednesday, Califf tried to change this narrative.
“There’s a reason why the ‘F’ in FDA comes first,” the commissioner said, wearing a bow tie featuring the California state flag. “I know that’s been a topic of a lot of discussion this year. I want to emphasize that we are focused on food during my tenure this time around.”
Califf said he was concerned about flattening or declining life expectancy in the U.S. and pointed to the country’s inability to deal with chronic diseases as a major factor.
“We’re in last place in the high-income country league right now in life expectancy,” he said, drawing a comparison to relegation in soccer, popularized in the show Ted Lasso, where teams can get demoted to a lesser league after losing too many games.“We would be relegated to the second league at this point,” said Califf. “We’re in last place and losing ground.”
Food insecurity nexus: The commissioner also connected diet-related diseases to food insecurity, a link that’s increasingly being made by health officials: “It’s disturbing, to say the least, that in a nation as knowledgeable and wealthy as ours, millions of Americans continue to suffer from diet related diseases and lack of basic nutrients for a healthy diet.” He noted that 75 percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables or dairy, while eating “too much” saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
The to-do list: Next conference-goers heard from Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who delivered a speech on the agency’s nutrition priorities. It was largely an overview of what we already know, including what was laid out in the new national strategy on hunger and nutrition. FDA is working on longer-term voluntary sodium reduction targets and is in the early stages of looking at front-of-pack labeling (though we don’t have a timeline for either of those). Mayne also touted the agency’s recent proposed update to the “healthy” claim on packaged foods, though the impact will be pretty limited, in part because so few products use the claim. (See Tuesday’s newsletter for more on this.)
The added sugars question: Mayne reiterated that FDA is taking a look at maybe doing more to encourage consumers to cut back on added sugar consumption. (You may recall that during the Obama administration, FDA updated Nutrition Facts labels to include disclosure of added sugars.) On Wednesday Mayne said the agency “will begin assessing the evidence for additional ways to reduce added sugar consumption as part of the national strategy.”
If that doesn’t sound super clear, it’s because it’s not. Mayne did get asked to clarify what’s next and the audience didn’t get too much more: Is the agency considering voluntary reduction targets like it’s doing for sodium?
“We’d like to convene a public meeting to really discuss what more needs to be done on added sugars,” replied Mayne. “There are many tools we could consider, that we could move forward.” She added: “One possible tool would be to use something like targets.”
FDA pushes for supply chain authority over formula
Califf and Mayne both publicly advocated for giving FDA additional authorities so the agency could actively monitor infant formula supply chains, particularly after the current crisis is over.
The two FDA leaders were asked about this issue during Wednesday’s conference. Said Califf: “Congress decided to kick that can down the road” [by not including it in the recent user fees deal], but added, “we’re all hopeful it’ll be reconsidered in December.”
“I think every industry that we regulate, including drugs, needs a different system of supply chain management,” Califf said. He said that infant formula companies have been cooperating and giving the agency information during the months-long shortage, but noted that there’s no legal requirement for companies to share what is normally considered confidential business information.
“I certainly don’t believe the government should be stepping into supply chains when things are going okay, but here we have a really important example of where the system was not resilient. There was no way for us to know what was going on out there.” Califf said that the agency has been intervening on supply issues “fairly often” to help with things like raw materials for infant formula.
USDA releases plan for cutting Salmonella in poultry
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service released a proposed plan this morning for reducing Salmonella contamination in poultry products – something that continues to make thousands of Americans sick each year.
I haven’t had a chance to read the full plan yet (next time, FSIS, a heads up would be great), but the department outlined three major components of the strategy: Requiring that flocks of chickens or turkeys be tested for Salmonella before entering slaughterhouses; beefing up contamination control monitoring within plants; and implementing “an enforceable final product standard,” including potentially a limit on the level of bacterial contamination allowed on the market. These sound like potentially big changes, but the details and timeline for implementation will be very important here.
USDA will host a virtual public meeting on Nov. 3, to get feedback on its proposed framework.
So far, the consumer lobby seems pretty happy. The Center for Science in the Public Interest lauded USDA in particular for “considering the unprecedented step of banning the highest-risk Salmonella contamination from raw poultry, helping ensure that product likely to make people sick is not sold to consumers.” (Note the word considering here.) Consumer Reports called the proposal “an encouraging sign.”
But as David Pitt at the Associated Press noted this morning, not everyone is impressed with USDA’s strategy. Bill Marler, a leading plaintiffs’ attorney specializing in foodborne illness, has pushed for the department to take a harder line and essentially make it illegal for poultry products to have Salmonella that can make people sick.
“What they’ve outlined is something that’s really unique that they have not ever done before but it doesn’t have a timeline and doesn’t have regulations attached that would show it’s actually going to be accomplished,” Marler told the AP. “That’s my criticism.”
You can find all the documents from USDA here.
Food prices rise, again
Food prices just keep going up. The price of food rose more than 11 percent this year, according to the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) report released Thursday. School lunch prices are also going up thanks to the end of universal free school meals in most states.
The cost of preparing food at home has gone up even more – 13 percent this year – which starts to make takeout look like a better deal, per the government’s official accounting (food away from home is up 8.5 percent for the year) . If these figures inspire you to eat out this weekend, be prepared: Labor costs associated with running restaurants are also going up, as employers face wage raises with the struggle to find staff.
Here’s a snapshot of month-to-month increases over the past two years:
School meals increase: The CPI numbers also picked up the expiration of universal free school meals: The food at employee sites and schools index rose nearly 45 percent in September’s report, “reflecting the expiration of some free school lunch programs,” per the latest report.
Tallying SNAP losses: On a related note, I am starting to see anti-hunger advocates zero in on food stamp benefits that have reverted back to pre-pandemic levels in several states (plus inflation adjustments).
This week, the Iowa Hunger Coalition calculated that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants in Iowa “missed out” on $141 million in benefits between April and August 2022 because the state had lifted its emergency declaration (ending, as a result, the stepped-up emergency SNAP payments).
“Food banks and food pantries across Iowa are breaking records for individuals assisted,” the coalition said. The group argued that the benefit lost has an even bigger impact on the state: USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that for every SNAP dollar, there’s roughly one and a half times that in economic activity.
First guilty pleas in school-meals fraud case
We’re starting to see some early action in the government’s case against 49 defendants who were charged in September with stealing $250 million from federal nutrition programs. The two long-standing programs – the Child and Adult Care Program and the Summer Food Service Program – were expanded to feed millions of additional families during the pandemic.
Joey Peters at the Sahan Journal, which has been all over this story, has the latest: “Three defendants pleaded guilty Thursday in a massive food-aid fraud investigation, admitting that they inflated or completely lied about the number of meals they served needy children in order to receive federal money.”
Each defendant pleaded guilty to wire to one count each of wire fraud. The paper said they face prison terms ranging from about two to five years. Federal prosecutors have also “hinted that more charges are possible,” per the Journal.
One of those three defendants told the court that their operation had claimed to serve more than two million meals between September 2020 and January 2022, receiving some $7.1 million in federal reimbursements. The individual agreed to a prison term between about three years and almost four years and was ordered to pay $5 million in restitution, the paper reported.
What I’m reading
USDA extends WIC flexibilities (USDA). The Agriculture Department on Thursday extended a policy to help families that participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) get formula that’s outside of their typical state contracts. The flexibility, extended through the end of December, allows participants to purchase alternate sizes, forms or brands of infant formula with their benefits, with USDA picking up the added cost in states that don’t have a contract with Abbott.
Beyond Meat to cut 19% of its workforce as sales, stock struggle (CNBC). More tough news for the plant-based protein sector: Beyond Meat is planning to cut nearly one-fifth of its workforce (about 200 employees), the company announced Friday in a regulatory filing, Sara Salinas reported. “Shares of the company, which are already down about 78% so far this year as the company struggles with declining sales, fell in mid-morning trading,” the outlet said.
The plant-based meat movement is down but not out (Bloomberg). In this opinion piece, Amanda Little argues that sure, investors have cooled and stocks are down, but the downswing won’t last as more people see the benefits the sector has long promised.
USDA uses school meal changes to prompt healthier children’s food in grocery stores (Food Navigator). The Department of Agriculture is “indirectly pressuring children’s food manufacturers to elevate the healthfulness of their products sold at retail” with $100 million in new incentives as the administration also looks to expand school meals access, reports Elizabeth Crawford.
Joseph Clayton is stepping down as CEO of the International Food Information Council. Clayton will continue leading IFIC until early 2023 “to ensure a smooth and seamless transition,” the group said.
Jamila Taylor has been named as the new president and CEO of the National WIC Association. Taylor, who will begin the role in mid-November, previously served as director of health care reform and as a senior fellow with The Century Foundation, “where she utilized her health policy expertise to combat structural healthcare inequities with special attention to the needs of women, people of color, and other communities at the margins,” per the announcement.
Today’s edition was produced with help from Courtney Fahlin.
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