Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix. I’m glad to be back after a refreshing August break. For the newbies: Welcome! I’m Helena – a longtime food policy reporter. Before launching Food Fix just over a year ago, I worked at Politico for nearly a decade.
Avoid missing out: If you’re not yet a paid subscriber, you missed Tuesday’s subscribers-only newsletter, which was all about FDA’s new pick to lead food at the agency (news that paid subscribers got first, by the way). Subscribe now to get Food Fix twice a week.
Food Fix out and about: I’ll be moderating a session at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Later that week, I’ll be in New Orleans at the National Restaurant Association’s The Table conference to talk about food policy and the media landscape. If you’re going to either event, say hi!
As always, I want your feedback. Reply to this email to land in my inbox, or drop me a note: email@example.com.
Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– The viral alcohol controversy, explained
– Senate to move on ag spending bill next week
President Biden isn’t coming for your beer – but alcohol advice could change
If you’ve spent any time on social media or, God forbid, cable news in recent weeks, you may be wondering: Is President Joe Biden really coming for my beer? Is this even America anymore!?
I briefly covered this brewing controversy in Tuesday’s newsletter, but here’s a quick recap for the blessedly uninitiated: British tabloid the Daily Mail recently ran a sensational story with the headline, “Biden’s alcohol czar warns Americans could soon be told to limit themselves to just two beers per WEEK under strict new booze guidelines.”
The story was based on speculative comments from George Koob, the director for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), about whether the forthcoming U.S. Dietary Guidelines update could shift alcohol recommendations.
“’I mean, they’re not going to go up, I’m pretty sure,” Koob told the Daily Mail. “So, if [alcohol consumption guidelines] go in any direction, it would be toward Canada.”
Alcohol advice 101: In the U.S., health officials have for decades recommended a limit of up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. In January, an expert panel in Canada recommended that Canadian adults limit consumption to two drinks per week – a big change from the status quo. There was a serious backlash. The Canadian government has not formally adopted this stricter advice, nor indicated whether it plans to – something that’s been misreported by numerous media outlets – but the idea that the U.S. might advise Americans to consume drastically less alcohol set off a firestorm online.
Fact-checks galore: I thought this whole controversy was dying down, but it’s still traveling the internet like wildfire. In the past few days, Politifact and others have published fact-checks to clarify that Biden is not actually coming for your beer.
The furor has mostly come from conservatives painting the Dietary Guidelines as some sort of draconian mandate, even though the government’s nutrition advice is voluntary and Americans largely ignore it. The guidelines are important for setting standards in programs like the National School Lunch Program, but even more so they’ve become a messaging and marketing battleground, where industries and ideologues fight mightily for their products or agendas to be favorably represented.
Hands off my beer: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) poured gasoline on this fire last week by staging a stunt on Newsmax where he railed against the idea of a two-beer limit.
“If they want us to drink two beers a week, frankly, they can kiss my ass,” Cruz said, as he took a swig of a Shiner Bock, while a group of farmers standing behind him also silently took swigs of beer in unison. The video, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, has nearly 3 million views.
“Why the hell does Biden have an alcohol czar?” Cruz fumed. “We don’t need czars in the United States.”
For the record, Biden doesn’t have an alcohol czar. In Washington, “czar” typically refers to a high-level official – like White House-level – who leads a certain policy area that often crosses multiple federal agencies. (Think: drug czar or covid czar.) As the head of an NIH institute that researches alcohol, Koob is very influential in this space, but by no means in charge of federal policy. Koob is not Biden’s alcohol czar, but that has not kept media outlets from calling him that in clickbait headlines.
Czar or not, it was certainly eyebrow-raising that Koob made these comments (even if they were noncommittal) right as the federal government is in the process of updating the Dietary Guidelines for 2025-2030, which very much includes a fresh look at alcohol. The overall guidelines are updated every five years in a process that’s shared by the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Biden administration pushes back: The White House ultimately rejected the original Daily Mail story: “This claim is absolutely false,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement on social media.
HHS, however – one of the departments that actually handles the Dietary Guidelines –didn’t emphatically deny that the advice could change, but clarified that it hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
“Updating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Dietary Guidelines) is a scientifically rigorous, multi-year process,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement. “Currently HHS and USDA are in step 3 of the process (the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reviews scientific evidence). Development of recommendations for the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines has not yet begun. Alcoholic beverages and health remain a high priority topic.”
The guidelines could change: The alcohol guidelines could very well change this round, we just don’t know yet because the formal process of reviewing the latest science has barely begun. I am not familiar enough with the scientific literature to know whether our understanding of alcohol and health has meaningfully shifted in the past few years, but I can tell that the media coverage and overall narrative has shifted considerably. There is now far more attention to the negative health effects of alcohol. It’s trendy to give up booze. Gen Z is drinking less. In January the World Health Organization basically said no level of alcohol is healthy. In June, new Nordic dietary guidelines recommended avoiding alcohol consumption.
The last time the U.S. Dietary Guidelines were updated (for 2020-2025), the expert panel advising the government did recommend cutting the standard alcohol-consumption advice. The panel suggested that the limit for men should come down from two drinks per day to one, which would make the limit for men and women the same. USDA and HHS ultimately did not adopt this recommendation. (They also declined to adopt stricter advice on limiting added sugars.)
Although “the preponderance of evidence supports limiting intakes of added sugars and alcoholic beverages to promote health and prevent disease,” the agencies said at the time, “the evidence reviewed since the 2015-2020 edition does not substantiate quantitative changes at this time.”
Alcohol itself has become such a politically controversial issue within the Dietary Guidelines that USDA and HHS have now carved it completely out of the regular process and assigned it to a separate expert panel, with an assist from yet another panel under the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. How this rather convoluted process will work is not yet clear. (They are currently looking for alcohol science experts to help with this, by the way!)
Tick, tock: It’ll be a while before we know where the government’s alcohol advice is really headed, but this is likely to be an intense political and scientific fight. And because recommending Americans drink less beer sounds like a presidential campaign manager’s nightmare, Team Biden might rest easy knowing the updated Dietary Guidelines aren’t due to come out until 2025, well after the 2024 presidential election wraps up.
Senate to move on ag spending bill next week
The Senate is planning to consider a small package of spending bills, including legislation that funds USDA, FDA and other key food programs, next week – a small step toward keeping the government funded past Sept. 30.
Readers of this newsletter may recall that the House’s ag spending bill imploded under political controversy before lawmakers left town for August recess – a development that was broadly seen as bad news for the farm bill, which is also on Congress’ to do list. Ag spending bills are not usually particularly controversial, but right now even easy things are hard in Congress.
What I’m reading
The promise of anti-obesity drugs (Financial Times). “It is somewhat ironic that Denmark’s economic growth in the first half of the year was driven almost entirely by the stellar performance of Novo Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical group…The fanfare behind the weight-loss injection, and others like it, is understandable. They have enormous potential to boost public wellbeing and slash healthcare costs throughout the world,” per the paper’s editorial board. “As the drugs become more prevalent, public information campaigns on poor diet, exercise and the misuse of weight-loss medication will be essential, alongside informative food labeling and access to gyms. For the less well-off, who may be priced out of superfood diets or fitness memberships, this will have greater significance. Wider access to effective weight-loss drugs will be a boon for global welfare. But it should not become an opening to less healthy habits.”
Biotech execs vie for a share of obesity drug boom: ‘It’s the early innings’ (STAT). “Pharma giants Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly might’ve led the way into a new era of obesity drugs, but they’re not going to own it, biotech executives say,” per this piece by Isabella Cueto. “There’s no denying that Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro from Novo and Lilly have generated buzz and renewed interest in the world of weight loss drugs…So far this year, federal funders have doled out over $70 million in research grants to study GLP-1-based drugs, the class of treatments that Novo and Lilly’s products are part of. But so much research also opens the door to other possible treatments — ones that might actually work better or be preferable to current options.”
Eat Just’s GOOD Meat division hasn’t paid its bills, says bioreactor co; parties in arbitration (AgFunder News). “Eat Just’s GOOD Meat cultivated meat division has not paid its bills on time, according to a lawsuit filed by bioreactor specialist ABEC, which is suing for breach of contract,” reports Elaine Watson. “ABEC, which has been working with Eat Just/GOOD Meat on pilot facilities in California and Singapore, announced an exclusive deal with GOOD Meat in early 2022. Under the seven-year deal, ABEC would design, manufacture, install and commission ten 250,000-liter vessels— ‘the largest known bioreactors for avian and mammalian cell culture’—for a large-scale facility in the US with the capacity to produce up to 30 million pounds of meat.”
“The worst dietary experiment”: How the US government wrecked our relationship with dietary fats (Salon). “It is nothing short of a miracle that those of us who lived through the fat-free and low-fat diet recommendations that were firmly in place by the 1990s made it to the age we are today with any measurable level of health,” argues columnist Bibi Hutchings.
Do you work in the food space? Upgrade to get more
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 access to the full Food Fix archive – a great way to get smart on all things food policy.
Expense it: Most of our paid subscribers are expensing their subscriptions through their 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 also qualify for a free subscription, just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Friday newsletter: If someone forwarded you this email, sign yourself up for the free Friday edition.