California takes on food additives

California legislature sends food additives ban to governor’s desk – a historic move that could force companies to reformulate their products. Does cheese need a break from sodium caps in school meals? And FDA petitioned to label gluten an allergen.

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– California legislature sends food additives ban to governor’s desk

– Does cheese need a break from sodium caps in school meals?

– FDA petitioned to label gluten an allergen


California legislature sends food additives ban to governor’s desk

On Tuesday, the California legislature passed a bill banning four controversial but widely-used food additives in food products sold in the state – a historic move that could put enormous pressure on food companies to reformulate products nationwide.

The California Food Safety Act – which cleared both chambers of the legislature by wide margins – would eliminate the use of brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propyl paraben and Red Dye No. 3, on the grounds that some studies have raised health concerns about the chemicals, including increased cancer risk. All four additives have already been banned in Europe (though Red Dye No. 3 is still allowed in candied cherries).

The big picture: There’s a saying: As goes California, so goes the nation. And this is exactly what public health advocates are hoping for – and what the food industry is worried about. Food manufacturers are not going to make special versions of their products just for California – the biggest consumer market in the U.S. – so a ban like this could easily force nationwide reformulation. A similar bill has also been proposed in New York.

Skittles skirt by: The California bill, by Democratic Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, originally sought to also ban titanium dioxide, an ingredient that’s used in Skittles and many other candies and foods, often as a whitening agent. Opponents of the bill had successfully spun the measure as a “Skittles ban,” even as backers contended it wouldn’t ban Skittles, but instead force them to be reformulated. Ultimately, however, titanium dioxide was dropped from the bill – perhaps a strategic move to increase the likelihood of Gov. Gavin Newsom signing it.

Several powerful industry groups – including the California Business Roundtable and California Chamber of Commerce –  dropped their opposition to the bill once the titanium dioxide ban was nixed. 

Will Newsom sign it into law? This is the big question. No one seems to know. Advocates are certainly hopeful that the overwhelming support in both chambers of the legislature will tip the scales, but there’s also a full court press against the measure from the food and beverage industries.

I asked Newsom’s office if the governor plans to sign the bill. A spokesperson said they typically don’t comment on pending legislation and “each bill will be evaluated on its merits.” The governor has until Oct. 14 to act. 


Senate seeks to give cheese a break from sodium caps in school meals

A spending bill moving through the Senate contains a measure that would give cheese a special exemption from sodium limits in school meals – a carveout backed by the dairy industry that has enraged health groups and even drawn opposition from the White House. 

“Lawmakers are prioritizing special interests over the health of the communities they represent,” said Mark Schoeberl, executive vice president of advocacy at the American Heart Association, in a statement. 

The USDA is in the process of tightening up the nutrition standards for school meals, but the department has gotten pushback from the food industry on everything from cutting sodium to instating caps on added sugars for the first time. (There are currently no limits on sugar.)

Word from the dairy industry: I asked the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents cheese-makers and others in the industry, why cheese needs a special carve out from sodium limits. 

“Sodium is unique because it ensures food safety in the cheese making process, and we will continue to encourage USDA to work with FDA to determine a minimal level of sodium by cheese type to maintain safety before setting standards that ultimately eliminate cheese and the essential nutrients it provides to school meals,” a spokesperson said in an email. “School meals are the healthiest meals that any person in the country is eating daily according to Tufts University, and dairy products like cheese have played a central role in making these meals healthy.”

Slow your roll: The cheese language could also end up slowing down USDA’s overall work to dial down sodium in school meals – a move that undermines the standards USDA is trying to update. 

“Research shows that nearly all children consume more sodium than recommended, which can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease,” argues USDA. “The proposed standards consider the latest nutrition science, extensive stakeholder input, lessons learned from previous standards, and the broader food environment and take a more gradual approach to lowering sodium in school meals.”

The White House said in a statement this week it’s “concerned” that the sodium language in the bill would “functionally limit USDA’s ability to establish any standards for sodium in school meals.”

Opposition: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has filed an amendment to try to strike the sodium language from the bill, though I’m told it likely doesn’t have enough support to get through the Senate.


FDA petitioned to make gluten a labeled allergen

Jax Bari, a 10-year-old living with Celiac disease, on Thursday petitioned the FDA to label gluten as a major food allergen, which would mean it needs to be disclosed on food labels just like milk, peanuts and other common allergens. 

Though wheat is among the major allergens that require labeling, gluten  – which can also be found in grains like barley, rye and oats – is not. 

Bari is seeking a “long-overdue reckoning by the FDA to better protect more than 3.3 million Americans with Celiac Disease.” 

Proponents of making gluten a mandatory labeled allergen argue that FDA already has the authority to do this, without Congress directing the agency to do it. (Readers of this newsletter may recall that there’s been recent controversy over sesame allergen labeling – read up on that debacle.)


What I’m reading

Insiders reveal major problems at lab-grown-meat startup Upside Foods (WIRED). This investigation by Matt Reynolds and Joe Fassler finds that UPSIDE Foods is still producing whole cuts of cell-cultivated chicken in extremely labor intensive laboratory environments, not in the large bioreactors that would be needed to produce scale. “Former and current employees say the Emeryville plant tells a misleading story of how Upside’s chicken is made,” they write. “In fact, sources say, the company’s flagship product—the juicy whole cuts of chicken served at Bar Crenn—are brewed, almost by hand, in tiny bottles. The huge bioreactors, those sources claim, simply aren’t capable of reliably brewing the sheets of tissue needed to form whole cuts of meat such as chicken fillets.”

Cultivated meat company UPSIDE Foods to open first commercial plant in Chicago (ABC7). “UPSIDE Foods will locate its first commercial plant for cultivated meat and seafood in Glenview, [Illinois] Governor JB Pritzker announced Thursday. Governor Pritzker’s office said the company would be investing $141 million and will create a minimum of 75 jobs. The 187,000-square-foot facility in Glenview will begin its production with cultivated chicken products, with plans to expand to other species in the future. The company said the new facility will produce millions of pounds of cultivated meat, with potential of producing more than 30 million pounds.”

The food industry pays ‘influencer’ dietitians to shape your eating habits (Washington Post). “The food, beverage and dietary supplement industries are paying dozens of registered dietitians that collectively have millions of social media followers to help sell products and deliver industry-friendly messages on Instagram and TikTok, according to an analysis by The Washington Post and The Examination, a new nonprofit newsroom specializing in global public health reporting,” report Anahad O’Connor, Caitlin Gilbert and Sasha Chavkin. “The analysis of thousands of posts found that companies and industry groups paid dietitians for content that encouraged viewers to eat candy and ice cream, downplayed the health risks of highly processed foods and pushed unproven supplements — messages that run counter to decades of scientific evidence about healthy eating.”

Food companies to regulators: Please don’t worry about ultra-processed anything (STAT News). “The food industry is anxious that regulators are focusing too much on the health impacts of so-called ultra-processed foods, the popular, ill-defined food group that includes everything from hot dogs and chicken nuggets to cookies and potato chips. Frozen food makers and the meat industry on Tuesday, speaking to a panel of nutrition experts tasked by the federal government with advising on the next round of the national dietary guidelines, raised concerns with its focus on that fare,” reports Nicholas Florko. “So too did a coalition that includes the bakery, candy, corn syrup, and sugar lobbies, and the Consumer Brands Association, which includes General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Hostess.”

Poverty rate soared in 2022 as aid ended and prices rose (New York Times). “Poverty increased sharply last year in the United States, particularly among children, as living costs rose and federal programs that provided aid to families during the pandemic were allowed to expire,” reported Ben Casselman and Lydia DePillis. “The poverty rate rose to 12.4 percent in 2022 from 7.8 percent in 2021, the largest one-year jump on record, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. Poverty among children more than doubled, to 12.4 percent, from a record low of 5.2 percent the year before. Those figures are according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors in the impact of government assistance and geographical differences in the cost of living. The increases followed two years of historically large declines in poverty, driven primarily by safety net programs that were created or expanded during the pandemic.”


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