Bernie Sanders vs. Big Food

A key progressive on Capitol Hill rails against the food, bev and pharma industries over the spiraling diabetes epidemic. More kids sickened by lead-tainted applesauce pouches. House votes to put whole milk back in schools; Senate hits brakes.


Bernie Sanders is pictured holding a microphone, wearing a dark suit and tie - making a speech in front of a dark background.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at gun control forum in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix. It’s been a big birthday week in Food Fix land! My mom and kiddo both celebrated another lap around the sun, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Taylor Swift. Happy Birthday to all! (I have to say, I got a kick out of Vilsack wishing T-Swift a happy birthday … and lauding her giving to food banks as part of the Eras tour.)

What actually happened at COP? ICYMI, on Tuesday I unpacked where food and agriculture landed in the United Nations’ climate talks and what it all means. 

‘Tis the season to upgrade: December is a great time to become a paid subscriber to Food Fix, especially if your company or org has any leftover budget going into the new year. Paid readers get this newsletter twice a week, plus full access to the Food Fix archive and more. Fun fact: 98 percent of Food Fix subscribers have renewed their subscriptions! Upgrade your subscription today.

As always, I welcome your feedback. Reply to this email to land in my inbox, or drop me a note: helena@foodfix.co

Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena

***

Today, in Food Fix: 

– A key progressive on Capitol Hill rails against food and bev industries

– More kids sickened by lead-tainted applesauce pouches

– House votes to put whole milk back in schools; Senate hits brakes

***

Bernie Sanders vs. Big Food

Progressive firebrand and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is certainly not shy about calling out corporate interests, but until this week I don’t think I’d ever heard him go off on the food industry.

The Vermont senator is now chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) – a committee with a broad jurisdiction (including FDA oversight), yet rarely focuses on food and nutrition issues. (More typical topics include health care, drug prices, unionization, pandemic preparedness, etc.) On Thursday, however, that committee held a hearing on what’s fueling high rates of diabetes in the U.S., and Sen. Sanders repeatedly hammered the food and beverage industries for their role in the crisis.

“For decades, in my view, we have allowed large corporations in the food and beverage industry to entice children to eat foods and beverages loaded up with sugar, salt, and saturated fat, purposely designed to be over-eaten,” Sanders said at the hearing. “The situation has gotten so bad that most of what children in America eat today consists of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods that doctors have told us lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.”

Some context: This might not sound that notable to the average person, but it’s not that often you hear lawmakers aim this kind of fire at food and beverage companies, and particularly not senior lawmakers in key positions. Some of this is structural: It’s not all that clear which committee is even responsible for addressing spiraling rates of diet-related diseases, as nutrition, food and health issues also fall across multiple other committees (including agriculture and even energy and commerce). Aside from that, though, topics like diabetes and obesity are just not a political focus on the Hill, save for a few lawmakers who have raised the issue in recent years, like Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.)

Oh hey, USA Today: Sanders didn’t just hold a fiery hearing where he repeatedly accused food and bev companies of essentially making Americans sick – at one point he even held up containers of Coca-Cola and asked if they should be marketed to children or come with warning labels. On Thursday he also published an op-ed in USA Today contending that the obesity and diabetes crises are directly related and getting worse, saying he intends to “do all that I can” to address them. His first recommendation is to ban junk-food marketing aimed at children, an idea that might sound simple but is considered next to politically impossible in Washington.

Marketing, marketing: Food industry leaders contend that marketing targeted at children is nowhere near as common as it once was, as food and beverage companies increasingly focus on digital advertising that’s targeted at those buying groceries (so parents and caregivers).

“Advertising is now highly-targeted,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association. “Everybody I’ve talked to in this industry is targeting people making purchasing decisions. This whole idea that we’re going to sort of bombard the whole world with images and that somehow it’s going to seep back to the person making the purchasing decisions is not really the current strategy.”

Chavern told me he was surprised to see marketing become a focus of the hearing. Major food and beverage companies have for years pledged to not target children in their marketing of less-than-healthy products.

A word from Big Bev: While we’re here, the American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other beverage makers, responded to the hearing by emphasizing cutbacks in sugar.

“We agree that too much sugar isn’t good for anyone,” said William Dermody, a spokesperson for ABA, in an email. “That’s why beverage companies are using transformative innovations to offer consumers more choices with less sugar, as well as clear calorie information, in an intentional strategy to support families in their efforts to reduce sugar in the diet.” Almost 60 percent of all beverages sold now have no sugar in them, Dermody said. 

Where is this political fire coming from? I was surprised to hear Sanders come out swinging on these issues. I’ve covered food policy for almost 15 years and have a running mental log of which politicians speak out on what. Because I couldn’t remember Sanders ever getting involved here, I did a good ol’ Google News search and sure enough, I couldn’t find much past news from Sanders on diet-related diseases (though he has repeatedly gone after the food industry over low wages). One notable exception: Back in 2016, when Sanders was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he opposed a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Philadelphia. (Clinton backed it.) 

I asked a bunch of people if they knew what sparked this new interest from Sanders and I got zero intel. All of my sources seemed curious, too. Spox for the HELP committee declined to answer my questions about what prompted this hearing or whether more hearings are in the works. (Bernie, my inbox is always open: helena@foodfix.co.)

The GLP-1 factor: One theory is that the increased media coverage of weight-loss (and diabetes) drugs has led to greater recognition of just how high obesity and diabetes rates have grown and how expensive these diseases are to treat. The flurry of headlines could very well have piqued some questions about how exactly we got here. The weight-loss drugs aimed at patients with obesity, for example, can run between $1,000 and $1,300 per month. Throughout the hearing Thursday, Sanders also railed against Big Pharma for charging Americans dramatically higher prices compared to other countries. More than 40 percent of American adults now have obesity and something like three fourths of the population is considered overweight, so the U.S. market for this new class of drugs is enormous and extremely lucrative.

***

More kids sick from lead-tainted applesauce pouches

Federal health officials are now reporting a lot more cases of children with high levels of lead in their blood potentially tied to consuming contaminated cinnamon-applesauce pouches made in Ecuador. 

The numbers are a tad confusing. FDA says it has so far received 65 reported cases potentially tied to the now-recalled products – all kids ages six and under. CDC, meanwhile, says it has received reports of 46 confirmed cases, 68 probable cases, and 11 suspected cases for a total of 125 cases. We don’t know how many cases overlap between the two agencies because they have different reporting mechanisms, but the bottom line is this: The number of children affected appears to be growing substantially. (Hat tip to the Washington Post for calling all 50 states last week and revealing that way more cases were being investigated than had originally been reported.)

Intentional? As I’ve previously noted, there’s been speculation that this contamination could have been intentional because the levels of lead found in these pouches are so high that accidental contamination just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On Thursday, Jim Jones, deputy commissioner for human foods at FDA, said in an interview with Politico that this is indeed the FDA’s leading suspicion: “We’re still in the midst of our investigation. But so far all of the signals we’re getting lead to an intentional act on the part of someone in the supply chain and we’re trying to sort of figure that out.” 

Checking the clock: FDA is now six weeks into its investigation. The agency just got into the plant in Ecuador at the center of this fiasco last week. And we are still waiting on ingredients tests to come back, per the agency’s most recent update

***

House votes to put whole milk back in schools; Senate hits brakes

The House did something a little unusual this week: It decided to focus on the ultra pressing question of whether federal school nutrition programs should allow whole milk. (The full-fat stuff has been off limits for about a decade due to updated nutrition standards based on the Dietary Guidelines.)

This whole thing led to a lot of jokes about how silly Congress can be. Heather Caygle over at Punchbowl News posted a picture from C-SPAN showing that right after the whole milk bill, the House was going to vote on a Biden impeachment inquiry. “Congress in a nutshell,” she quipped. (The whole thing even went a little viral.)

Everyone loves whole milk? While there were lots of jokes made at its expense, the legislation to allow whole milk back in schools passed the House overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support, 330 to 99.

Senate skids: While the whole milk bill sailed through the House, things got tricky in the Senate. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) tried to get unanimous consent to clear the bill on the Senate floor Thursday, but Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) objected, arguing that Congress shouldn’t override nutrition standards that are supposed to be set by scientists – and that doing so would set a bad precedent, essentially putting nutrition programs at the whims of whatever commodities find the most political support. 

***

What I’m reading 

Millions of parents and young kids could be denied food aid next year without funding boost, report warns (NBC). “A long-standing federal food assistance program could be short $1 billion next year, leaving 2 million parents and young children without access to its support, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Tuesday,” per Emily Pandise and J.J. McCorvey. “The center-left think tank called on Congress to allocate more funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, citing a higher-than-expected demand in an economy whose surprising strengths haven’t fended off a post-pandemic hunger crisis. ‘Congress has failed to provide WIC with the additional funding it needs to avoid turning away eligible young children and pregnant and postpartum adults with low incomes for the first time in decades,’ Ty Jones Cox, the vice president for food assistance policy for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP, said on a conference call Tuesday.”

The biggest problem with lab-grown chicken is growing the chicken (Bloomberg). “After eight years of toiling away in labs, raising more than $600 million and getting US Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture signoffs to sell its first product, [Upside Foods] has little to show for itself,” write Deena Shanker and Priya Anand. “The company said its current plant would make more than 50,000 pounds of product each year and has recently announced plans to build a 187,000-square-foot commercial meat plant. But at the moment it’s selling only a pound of chicken a month—meat that would underwhelm the average diner lining up for a roast bird at Zuni Café in San Francisco or a Nashville hot chicken joint. The company, in a letter from its attorney to Bloomberg Businessweek, says plans for scaling up have been an evolution saddled with “realities and complexities of doing something that has never been done before. Innovation rarely happens in a straight and continuous line.”

Oprah says she is on a weight loss drug and ‘done with the shaming’ (New York Times). “In 1988, Oprah Winfrey tugged a red wagon filled with fat across the stage of her television show to represent the 67 pounds she said she had lost on a liquid diet. Just a few years later she renounced dieting, but her fluctuating weight and the bias she has experienced because of it have remained frequent topics of discussion for both Ms. Winfrey and the media in the decades since,” write Dani Blum and Callie Holtermann. “Now, Ms. Winfrey, 69, has once again joined the discourse around diet, revealing on Wednesday that she had started taking a medication to manage her weight. Her announcement comes as demand has soared for new drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy and Zepbound that can help people lose weight, in part by suppressing appetite…Ms. Winfrey said she had decided to start taking a weight loss medicine after hosting a panel discussion, which she said had disabused her of the myth that weight hinges solely on a person’s self-control.”

The dangers of ultra-processed foods (Harvard University). I haven’t watched this yet, but it’s a replay of an event hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health this week.  “Ultra-processed foods are everywhere; the category includes many cereals, breads, yogurts, and frozen dinners — not to mention sweets and sodas. In fact, they make up nearly 60% of the typical American diet. But there’s mounting evidence that ultra-processed foods are potentially addictive and uniquely dangerous, linked to conditions including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Our experts will walk through the science and share policy recommendations, as well as tips for healthy eating.” The panelists: Kevin Hall, senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases; Jerry Mande, CEO of Nourish Science and adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard; and Josiemer Mattei, Donald and Sue Pritzker associate professor of nutrition at Harvard. The panel was moderated by journalist and author Larissa Zimberoff.

FDA advances reorganization proposal for unified Human Foods Program (FDA). The FDA’s proposal to reorganize the foods side of the agency has taken a step forward. The package is now under review at the Department of Health and Human Services, which sits above the agency. “After more than a year of work following the findings and recommendations of a Reagan-Udall Foundation evaluation and other feedback, this is a significant step in the process,” the agency said. “Following several remaining critical steps, the agency is hopeful implementation will occur sometime in calendar year 2024.” This week the agency also issued an update on actions taken since the infant formula crisis – find that overview here.

***

Upgrade to get more from Food Fix

Become a paid subscriber to unlock access to two newsletters each week, packed with insight, analysis and exclusive reporting on what’s happening in food in Washington and beyond. You’ll also get full access to the Food Fix archive – a great way to get smart on all things food policy.

Expense it: Most paid subscribers expense their subscriptions through work. It’s worth asking! 

We also offer discounts for government, academia and students. View subscription options.

Individuals who participate in SNAP or other federal nutrition programs qualify for a free Food Fix subscription – just email info@foodfix.co.  

Get the Friday newsletter: If someone forwarded you this email, sign yourself up for the free Friday edition

You can also follow Food Fix on X and LinkedIn.

See you next week!