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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– A bill to fund USDA and FDA hits the skids in the House
– A non-resolution resolution to the sesame debacle
– Health groups ask FDA to go bigger on front-of-pack
Bad vibes in the House ahead of farm bill
A sweeping spending bill to fund USDA and FDA next fiscal year was supposed to pass the Republican-controlled House this week, but the legislation got pulled before it made it to the floor over far-right demands for deeper spending cuts. It’s now been punted to September when Congress gets back from recess.
Why does this matter? Aside from this legislation being important for keeping the lights on at key agencies past Sept. 30 when the fiscal year turns over – remember, USDA inspects all meat and FDA has oversight over everything from drugs to infant formula – it also offers an early vibe check on where Republicans are ahead of the farm bill, which also expires Sept. 30.
And the vibes are not good, to put it mildly. This spending bill – we call it ag appropriations, or ag approps for short – was supposed to be one of the least controversial spending bills on the House to-do list. (They need to pass 12 in total; they’ve done one so far.) That House leadership couldn’t even get it to the floor this week is a reminder that even things that should be relatively easy to accomplish are now very hard.
Cuts, cuts, cuts: The House ag approps bill already proposed belt-tightening across USDA and FDA – spending levels that the Senate will not agree to – but the hard-line House Freedom Caucus is now demanding even steeper reductions. As Erik Wasson over at Bloomberg reported Thursday, the effort to take an ax to bills that have already been approved by the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee is not going over well with mainstream Republicans:
“You might as well throw the bill on the floor and stomp on it at that point,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said, of the push to cut more spending from the Interior Department funding bill he authored, per Wasson’s report – a quote that sums up the overall vibe pretty well.
Culture wars: Another major sticking point is the fact that the ag approps bill contains language that would nullify a Biden administration rule allowing abortion pill Mifepristone to be sold in retail pharmacies and by mail with a prescription – a controversial way to limit abortion access that’s gotten pushback from even moderate Republicans. Far-right conservatives have also filed amendments seeking votes on everything from blocking racial equity work at USDA – a department with a well-documented history of discrimination – to barring funding for anything related to gender-affirming therapies.
To be clear, this is not how things used to be. Ag approps is not usually loaded with culture war fights and red meat for either party’s base. For most of my time covering food and ag policy in Washington, the hot-button issues in this bill were things like banning horse slaughter and whether to block chicken from China in the school lunch program – not your mainstream political fights.
Calendar check: As a refresher, the current farm bill expires right as the fiscal year ends (Sept. 30), though there’s some debate about how much that date matters in terms of farm bill programs actually expiring. Congress has a bit of wiggle room here, but it seems increasingly likely that current law will be extended to give lawmakers more time. The House is going on recess until Sept. 12, which leaves very little time to keep the government funded and deal with the farm bill. The Democrat-controlled Senate also faces a tight timeline in September.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) told Phil Brasher over at Agri-Pulse that while he still wants to move a farm bill in September, doing so will depend on there being floor time amid a pileup of spending bills.
“I’ll hold back on the markup until I have a clear window when the floor week’s going to be, because I want it to time up well,” Thompson said, per the report.
TL;DR: The farm bill faces bad vibes and a tough calendar. The in-fighting over this spending bill is also seen as a warning that we are at greater risk of facing a government shutdown come the end of September.
A non-resolution resolution to the sesame debacle
On Wednesday the FDA largely denied a petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) asking the agency to take a strong stand against commercial bakers intentionally adding sesame to products to comply with a new allergen labeling requirement.
Recap sesame: If you’re new here, you may not be familiar with what I’ve been calling the great sesame debacle.
Here’s a quick recap: Several years ago, advocates asked FDA to add sesame to the list of allergens that food companies must disclose on their labels. That didn’t work, so then they went to Congress to pass a bill asking the FDA to do it. Congress did it. FDA followed suit, but now major baking companies are adding sesame flour to their products to comply instead of ensuring their products are sesame free. So after nearly a decade of advocacy, legislation and regulatory work, the more than a million consumers with sesame allergies are now worse off with fewer breads and buns they can safely consume.
Technically fine: Adding sesame flour to breads – just look in the bread aisle, so many items now contain sesame – is one of those things that clearly flouts the intent of the law, but doesn’t technically break the law.
“We are aware that some manufacturers are intentionally adding sesame to products that previously did not contain sesame and might be doing so for reasons related to allergen cross contact controls,” the FDA said in its response to CSPI this week. “Although FDA does not encourage the addition of sesame as an ingredient to a food when sesame is not normally an ingredient used to make the food, a company’s decision to add sesame and then declare it on the label as required is not violative.”
Small silver lining? In its response, FDA also acknowledged that adding sesame “could make it more difficult for sesame allergic consumers to find foods that are safe for them to consume, an outcome that FDA does not support.”
CSPI was heartened by this language. “That should be a clear message to industry to put an end to this lazy and cynical practice,” said Peter Lurie, the group’s president, in a statement.
FDA also said it was “actively looking into and engaging on this practice” of companies intentionally adding sesame to foods that previously didn’t contain them.
Bottom line: This is inaction compared to the crackdown – or at least a strongly-worded statement – allergy advocates were hoping for. It’s a non-resolution resolution to the ongoing debacle. I previously wrote more about how we got into this policy failure.
Health groups ask FDA to go bigger on front-of-pack
Major health groups are urging FDA to include some bolder options in the agency’s consumer testing for front-of-pack food labels to help consumers make healthier choices.
Some public health advocates had hoped FDA would opt to test labels with explicit warnings of high levels of salt, sugar and fat, similar to what countries like Chile have done, but the agency is not including these in its research. With warnings apparently off the table, the groups recently encouraged FDA to test an exclamation point icon or using the term “ATTENTION!” as potential options.
“These attention-grabbing features would contribute toward the study’s goals of identifying a scheme that allows consumers to quickly evaluate the healthfulness of products,” the groups wrote.
Backers of going bolder: The comment was supported by CSPI, American Heart Association, Association of State Public Health Nutritionists, International Fresh Produce Association, Prevention Institute and several other prominent nutrition researchers and research institutions.
Here’s an example of what the groups would like to see FDA test:
See this breakdown of what FDA has said it is planning to test.
Mea culpa: On Tuesday, I reported that the FDA had reopened the comment period for its front-of-pack labeling research due to a technical issue with a comment docket. The docket experiencing technical difficulties was the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) reginfo.gov portal, not regulations.gov – apologies for the confusion! The OMB’s portal doesn’t make comments public, but many groups have also submitted to the FDA’s docket. View those comments here. If you weighed in, send me your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What I’m reading
U.S. fast-food chains report fatter margins as cheese, chicken, avocado costs fall (Reuters). “Major U.S. restaurant chains including burger giant McDonald’s saw lower ingredient costs, especially for chicken, cheese and avocado, drive profit margins in the second quarter,” report Deborah Mary Sophia and Kailyn Rhone. “Domino’s, McDonald’s and Chipotle said they were starting to benefit from easing costs after red-hot inflation forced them to raise menu prices a few quarters ago. Wholesale prices have been falling sharply in recent months, according to U.S. federal data. Cost inputs for food for final demand grew at a year-over-year rate of 0.3 percent in June, down from a peak of 15 percent in late 2022.”
Bud Light maker Anheuser-Busch to lay off hundreds of corporate staff (CNBC). “Beverage giant Anheuser-Busch InBev announced it will lay off hundreds of corporate employees as sales of its flagship lager Bud Light falter,” reports Stefan Sykes. “In a statement to CNBC on Thursday, a company spokesperson said the job cuts affect less than 2 percent of U.S. employees. Anheuser-Busch has about 18,000 employees nationwide. The layoffs will include about 350 of those people. Bud Light sales have sagged following a conservative boycott over its March Madness partnership with transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney. The company faced backlash from other consumers, and Mulvaney herself, over its decision not to defend the collaboration.”
Lab-grown flavors are coming to your food and drink (Wall Street Journal). “Someday the flavors and smells added to most foods and drinks could be created in yeast-brewing tanks rather than extracted from plants or synthesized in labs, some researchers predict,” writes Anna Kramer. “Around two decades ago, scientists found that tweaking the genes in yeast—a single-cell fungus—could cause it to produce a variety of compounds. Today yeasts are being genetically engineered to produce flavor molecules in research that could eventually lead to entirely new and unfamiliar tastes.”
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