The case for breaking up FDA

The Washington Post editorial board calls for removing food policy from the FDA’s portfolio. Fox News goes on a tear against Tufts’ Food Compass. Western produce groups oppose Kroger-Albertsons merger.

A photograph of FDA signage outside of the agency's headquarters.s

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Today, in Food Fix: 

 – The Washington Post editorial board calls for removing food from the FDA

 – Fox News goes on a tear against Tufts’ Food Compass

 – Produce groups oppose Kroger-Albertsons merger


The case for breaking up FDA

Last April, when I published my deep dive on FDA – which found a startling level of dysfunction on the foods side of the agency – I knew the story was big. But I had no idea it would still have legs nearly a year after I wrote it. 

I was stunned this week to see the Washington Post editorial board come out with a scathing editorial that really took the FDA to task. The Post cited my reporting, along with other reviews that have found much the same, including by the Reagan-Udall Foundation, the HHS Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. The panel really did their homework.

What is an ed board? I should probably stop here and explain that an editorial board is not the same as the newspaper; it’s a panel of opinion editors and writers (see who’s on the WaPo ed board here) that weigh in on topics of public interest with a unified voice. I had no idea this editorial was in the works, so I was surprised to see it.

The bottom line: The ed board’s ultimate conclusion was that things are so broken at FDA that food should be completely yanked from the agency’s jurisdiction – a radical change after the FDA has overseen the safety of the U.S. food supply for a century. Creating a separate food agency was also one of the options that the independent review from the Reagan-Udall Foundation laid out. Still, it’s unlikely to happen for many reasons, including that it would require Congress to act. Inertia is powerful.

What it means: While it proposes a lofty solution, the piece no doubt has the attention of top FDA officials, folks at the White House and beyond. The fact that agency dysfunction is still getting attention puts additional pressure on FDA Commissioner Robert Califf to think big as he mulls a “new vision” for food at FDA, something he’s expected to unveil later this month. 

“We are a couple of weeks away from announcing the architecture,” Califf told the ed board in a Q&A. “Where does each box fit? We’ll talk about the leadership [of the FDA]… We are coalescing on a plan.”

Quote of the week: Califf also said in the interview: “Our food is basically safe, despite all of this, but it could be better.” (FWIW, the CDC estimates 3,000 people die and 128,000 are hospitalized each year from foodborne illness.)

Failing grades pile up: Anyone who has taken a serious look at food oversight at FDA has concluded the same thing I have, which is that things are not working.

The FDA is not working if it takes a years-long struggle to set even interim, voluntary limits for heavy metals and other neurotoxins in baby food. 

The FDA is not working if its public health mission is to improve nutrition, but diet-related diseases continue to worsen unabated, driving massive human and health care costs.

The FDA is not working if it takes more than a decade to address agricultural water safety – one of the significant ways fresh produce gets contaminated, sparking deadly outbreaks year after year.

The FDA is not working if it routinely fails to get to the bottom of serious food poisoning incidents – like last summer, when hundreds of people were sickened and more than 130 were hospitalized after eating Daily Harvest frozen crumbles.

The FDA is not working if it is conducting fewer and fewer food safety inspections, even as Congress has given the agency more resources over the years to do more inspections. 

The editorial board made a handy chart to show food inspections trends over time. President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law in January 2011 – 12 years ago this month – yet this is the trend line for inspections over that period. 

The steep dropoff in 2020 is due to the pandemic, but you’ll notice domestic inspections were on the decline already. This was not Congress’ intent with FSMA, which was supposed to beef up oversight and better focus on prevention. 

What will Califf do? Everyone’s anxious to see what Califf unveils in this new vision. FDA leadership is holding its plans close to the vest so far. Plenty of folks in town are still worried that he will not shake things up enough, instead opting to tweak the org structure and call it a day.

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, who has been among the most vocal in urging reform at the agency, told me he thinks it would be a bad idea to go small: “With the pressure they are facing, it probably wouldn’t make sense to propose something incremental and try to pass it off as meaningful, especially considering the early signals that this will remain a bipartisan concern in the new Congress,” he said.

The kicker: Here’s how WaPo ended the editorial: ​​“Food safety affects every American on a daily basis. When it’s not done properly, people die. The United States can keep watching tragedies such as the baby formula crisis happen and having independent experts write reports that come to largely the same conclusions. Or the FDA commissioner and Congress can finally act decisively.”


Fox News goes on tear against Tufts’ Food Compass

Fox News has aired three segments recently criticizing the Food Compass, a new food nutrient profiling system in development from researchers at Tufts University.

The beef: The basic criticism is that some processed foods, like Frosted Mini Wheats and Lucky Charms, rate higher (i.e. healthier) than simpler foods like cheddar cheese and ground beef. I think reasonable people can understand this as fair criticism. What didn’t make sense was that Fox News repeatedly and incorrectly conflated the Compass with federal nutrition guidelines and made innuendos of a government and corporate conspiracy to essentially fatten Americans on purpose.

A word from Tufts: I got in touch this week with Dariush Mozaffarian, the lead researcher on the Food Compass, and he readily acknowledged that the system has limitations, as all nutrient profiling systems do. He said the overall goal is to incorporate factors that other similar nutrition rating schemes don’t, like fat quality instead of just quantity, the level of processing and refined carbohydrates.

“We wanted to create a new system that was more holistic, that took into account things that existing systems don’t account for,” Mozaffarian said.

So why do, say, Frosted Mini Wheats score relatively well in the Food Compass? It’s a legitimate question, Mozaffarian acknowledged. “I accept constructive criticism, [like] ‘Whole grain packaged foods, that are mostly whole grain but are still packaged and processed and have some added sugar, should those be scoring as highly as they do?’… I think it’s a valid point. We’re looking at ways to see if we can scientifically improve the scoring. We do account for processing, but maybe we should account for it even more.” (He also noted that animal products actually score pretty well overall.)

Thought bubble: I really welcome cable news shows talking about nutrition and food policy, sincerely, I do! That said, I wish the producers and researchers for these shows would do their homework first. These recent segments contained so many straight-up false claims, including that the Tufts’ Food Compass is the government’s new food pyramid (false) and that you can’t buy healthy food with food stamps (also false). These kinds of amateur mistakes completely undermine some of the other, more valid points of criticism. 

More to come: I dug into this controversy further, and I’ll have an in-depth explainer next week on how this all blew up. If you have thoughts, definitely get in touch:


Western produce groups oppose Kroger-Albertsons merger

A coalition of regional produce industry groups, including Western Growers, the California Fresh Fruit Association and Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan warning that the proposed Kroger-Albertsons merger would be a blow to farmers and consumers alike.

“Kroger and Albertsons – currently the largest and second-largest supermarket chains in the United States – already exert considerable market buying influence as standalone entities over produce suppliers,” the groups wrote. “Their merger would exacerbate the cycle of supermarket consolidation we have seen in recent years.”

We’ve been here before: The produce groups point to the 2015 Albertsons acquisition of Safeway, after which “Albertsons consolidated its buying program by rewarding contracts only to its largest produce suppliers.”

“Those who shipped fewer packages to Albertsons and had low to no exposure to Safeway pre-merger were supplanted in favor of Albertsons’ largest shippers,” the letter said.

Sticker shock: In addition to squeezing farmers’ profitability, the mega-merger would lead to higher produce prices for grocery shoppers and discourage more consumers from buying healthier items like fruits, nuts and vegetables, the groups warn. 

(Hat tip to Jerry Hagstrom of the Hagstrom Report for flagging this letter.)

FTC looks at Big Beverage: While we’re talking antitrust, Bloomberg reported this week that the agency has “begun a probe of the pricing practices of Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.” The move follows through on “promises to resume enforcement of an antitrust law enacted during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt.” More here.


What I’m reading

Why ultra-processed foods are so bad for you (TIME). This piece by Tara Law is an explainer of sorts, rounding up some of the latest research on ultra-processed foods. It also floats the idea of limiting ultra-processed foods in schools and expanding access to healthier options, among other potential responses like warning labels. 

Food as medicine? It’s not as simple as it sounds (Washington Post). Physician Daphne Miller argues here that food as medicine has potential, but can also be complicated to implement. “Prescribing food is not as straightforward as it sounds. Food is more complex than any pill. This makes it difficult for doctors and patients to know which medically tailored foods are the best medicine and which suppliers can best deliver these edible therapies.”

Spices found to be a significant source of lead poisoning in Douglas County (Omaha World-Herald). This deep dive by Nancy Gaarder caught my eye: “Contaminated spices were determined to be the second-leading cause of lead poisoning in Douglas County children in 2021. The reason? Medical testing of families fleeing war-torn Afghanistan found a number of children with high lead levels. The Douglas County Health Department traced the source of the lead to food, specifically lead-contaminated spices.” The piece notes that health advocates have been urging the FDA to set limits for heavy metals, but the agency has not yet done so.

Big Dairy milks Congress for baby formula tariffs (Cato). This blog post by policy analyst Gabriella Beaumont-Smith argues that it was wrong to let the formula tariffs resume on Jan. 1. “Aside from the absurdity that comes with taxing a necessity like baby formula (although, it’s not uncommon for the federal government to tax necessities and for the same reasons these tariffs on formula exist in the first place – ignominious special interests), reinstating tariffs on formula imports is completely nonsensical since the emergency trade liberalization on foreign formula abated the crisis.”


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