The great sesame debacle

Congress asked food makers to label sesame as an allergen. It backfired in a big way. McCarthy includes SNAP work requirements in debt ceiling bill. FDA’s Susan Mayne to appear before a House Oversight panel. Plus, the Senate’s candy desk.

Everything bagel pictured in the center of a pure yellow backdrop.s

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! It’s nice to be back in action this week after last week’s break! If you’re not yet a paid subscriber, you missed Tuesday’s edition on the fight over work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, AKA food stamps) and a rundown of everything happening in DC this week. 

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Awards news: I’m delighted to share that an investigative story I wrote about dysfunction within FDA’s foods division was selected as one of the top consumer-focused stories of the year as part of the Betty Furness Consumer Media Honors. Last week, I was also honored to attend the prestigious Polk Awards (belatedly!) for a series I’d written before the pandemic on climate change (more on that here).

Notes on AI: I got so many fun notes from you all about artificial intelligence after my post on GPT-4 and food policy. There were the admissions that yes, congressional staff are very much using this to write things for their bosses – for better or worse! – but I think my favorite was the note about using the tech to write creative bedtime stories for grandchildren. The use cases abound!

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– Congress asked food makers to label sesame as an allergen. It backfired in a big way.

– McCarthy includes SNAP work requirements in debt ceiling bill

– FDA’s Susan Mayne to appear before a House Oversight panel

– A new keeper of the Senate Candy Desk


The great sesame debacle

As you might imagine, it’s really hard to get Congress to pass legislation, even if it’s popular. Back in 2021, however, Congress actually passed a little-known bill at relatively warp speed. The FASTER Act, which mandates sesame allergen labeling, cleared the Senate unanimously (!) in early March, cleared the House (415–11) a few weeks later, and was signed into law by President Joe Biden in April. 

By Washington’s standards, to say this was fast is a gross understatement. 

The bill was backed by a bipartisan roster of lawmakers, led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.). There was no real opposition that I’m aware of – it seemed like a truly bipartisan no-brainer. Everything was going great! 

So how did the implementation of this seemingly straight-forward, non-controversial bill become an unmitigated disaster? 

The labeling requirement took effect in January of this year, and so far the main result has been food companies adding sesame to their products en masse to comply while clearly avoiding the spirit of the law. The more than 1 million people in the U.S. who are allergic to sesame now have fewer safe food options and live in more fear of allergic reactions – the exact opposite of what lawmakers were going for.

Now, you might be thinking: Does this really matter? I’m not allergic to sesame. I think it does. Not only is this saga a disaster for people living with allergies, it also raises big questions about the federal government’s ability to create and enforce sensible rules of the road and the industry’s commitment to following them.

A quick backstory: Sesame is the ninth most common food allergy in the U.S. Since 2006, federal law has required labeling and disclosure of the top eight allergens (think: wheat, eggs, milk, soy) – a policy pushed by allergy advocates. In 2014, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and others began urging FDA to use its authority under federal law to essentially add sesame to the pack of allergens that have to be disclosed. When that route failed, advocates eventually went to Congress to force the agency to act.

Advocates have been pressing for sesame to be disclosed on food packages for the better part of a decade. Now, it is finally required – and it has backfired in a big way. 

A huge mess: Earlier this month the Washington Post published a great piece on this by Karen Weese who explained why food companies have taken this puzzling approach: 

“Some in the food industry say adding sesame flour is the safest path forward. They contend that they can’t sufficiently clean their equipment to guarantee it is free of sesame, as the Faster Act requires. And under federal labeling rules, they can’t state that their products contain sesame unless the items actually contain it — so they’re adding sesame and labeling it.”

Someone in the industry compared the sesame problem to cleaning up glitter your child exploded all over your house – no amount of vacuuming will save you! It’s still not clear to me, however, why this allergen is fundamentally trickier than any of the others. Lots of things are hard to control in food processing, and yet the food industry usually finds a way.

The fury of parents: Weese told me she first learned about this under-the-radar regulatory issue while on a road trip with her family around the New Year. Her son, who is allergic to sesame, went to order Chick-fil-A for the whole group on his phone and he (thankfully) saw a pop up message announcing the restaurant’s products now contained sesame, a shocking revelation because the chain had been previously considered safe for him. Weese started looking into it and realized it wasn’t just Chick-fil-A – this shift was widespread. It was a large swath of the bakery aisle at the grocery store. It was many other restaurant chains, from Olive Garden to Wendy’s. It was happening in school cafeterias. Suddenly, sesame was everywhere.

And people – particularly parents – are pissed.

“Parents are incredibly worried about what this means for their kids, and parents are furious that companies – companies they have trusted for years, companies from whom they have loyally purchased products precisely because they were sesame-free – would quietly add an invisible life-threatening allergen just to save themselves a buck and a little bit of hassle, and think that was even remotely acceptable,” Weese told me by email this week. She’s gotten a ton of messages from parents across the country, she said, since her piece ran. There’s a lot of anger, and also shock: How could this happen?

A word from the bakers: Most of the handful of food companies that have responded publicly to the controversy have given a similar response: We can’t guarantee our products don’t contain sesame, so we had to make a choice. 

Chick-fil-A, for example, per WaPo, told consumers that its bread suppliers “are unable to guarantee with 100% certainty that their production lines for our white bun and multigrain brioche bun are sesame-free … even after intensified cleaning.” 

I asked the American Bakers Association, which represents the commercial baking industry, about the whole issue and got a pretty generic statement: “The wholesale baking sector prioritizes consumer safety,” a spokesperson said. “Baking companies are working with their customers, including restaurants, to transparently disclose any allergen labeling changes to help ensure consumer safety.”

Where’s FDA? This debacle has put pressure on the FDA to take some kind of action – is the agency going to sit idly by while a whole sector flouts a regulatory requirement like this (even if mainly in spirit)?Couldn’t this ultimately undermine all allergen labeling? Sarah Sorscher, director of regulatory affairs at CSPI, wants the FDA to put out a statement warning the industry that this practice is essentially flouting other food safety rules – a way to put the industry on notice. (CSPI petitioned the FDA about this in January.) So far, that hasn’t happened.

“It’s another example of how the foods program needs stronger leadership,” Sorscher told me. “This is a failure of leadership at FDA, that they haven’t been able to step out and block this practice. It’s clearly harmful. It runs against the spirit and the letter of food safety rules. And yet here we have FDA doing nothing.”

I asked the FDA if the agency plans to crack down and didn’t get a direct answer. 

“FDA is aware that some manufacturers are adding sesame to products that previously did not contain sesame and are labeling the products to alert consumers to the presence of sesame,” an agency spokesperson said. “We are working on several fronts to gather information to better understand the issue and underlying factors. We have met with academic experts to understand whether there are unique challenges faced by the bakery industry in the U.S. in terms of sesame allergen cross-contact controls. We also met with the American Bakers Association to understand their member’s perspectives.”

Unintended – and unprecedented: I hate to use the overused term, but this type of industry response to a federal labeling mandate does appear to be unprecedented. 

“In the 25 plus years that I’ve been working on the food allergy issue, I’ve never seen an entire industry sector basically choose to intentionally add a food allergen,” said Robert Earl, vice president of regulatory affairs for Food Allergy Research Education (FARE), a main backer of the sesame labeling law. “It’s just never happened before.”

Allergy advocates have been beside themselves about it. “It’s almost like deliberate poisoning,” Earl said.

Making this whole saga even stranger? Sesame has been considered a major allergen in Canada for more than a decade. It’s also a major allergen in the European Union. There’s been no similar sesame labeling drama in either place that I’m aware of. (If you’re a food maker in either jurisdiction with thoughts on this, get in touch!)

Lawmakers displeased: We haven’t seen much noise about this debacle on Capitol Hill, but sponsors of the bill are not happy about how it has played out. 

“We passed this legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support to make the world safer for kids with allergies,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a key backer of the legislation, in a statement to Food Fix. “It’s just unconscionable that companies are going out of their way to sidestep the spirit of the law and deliberately hurt kids, so they can save a few bucks.”

“These companies should be ashamed that they’ve made life scarier and more dangerous for thousands of families, and I’m going to keep working until we fix it,” Murphy added.

Food MIA: While we’re here, it’s worth noting that in Tuesday’s edition I suggested FDA Commissioner Robert Califf could get asked about a number of food issues – including sesame labeling, since it’s been in the headlines – during a Senate appropriations committee hearing this week. He did not. Food was barely mentioned in the hearing. 


McCarthy includes SNAP work requirements in debt ceiling bill

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) formally unveiled legislation this week that would lift the debt ceiling for one year along with some spending cuts and policy changes, including expanding work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – a controversial idea that lacks support in the Senate.

The bill would expand the number of adults categorized as an able-bodied adult without dependents (known in Washington as ABAWDs) – a population that’s subject to a three-month limit for receiving benefits every three years unless individuals show they are working or job training roughly 20 hours per week. 

Currently, ABAWDs include adults ages 18 to 49. The GOP debt ceiling bill seeks to raise the age ceiling to 55. Interestingly, the bill doesn’t seek to clamp down on states’ ability to seek waivers to the existing ABAWD time limit – something that Republicans have long complained is a major loophole. (The ABAWD requirements were fully suspended during the pandemic, anyway, but kick back in this summer.) 

Dollars and sense: It’s not clear how much money this type of policy would save, but I’m going to bet it’s not a whole lot. This policy, I think it’s fair to say, isn’t about meaningful spending cuts – it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the ballooning debt – but about the policy choice. Some Republicans are eager to impose stricter work requirements on safety net programs like SNAP during a time of low unemployment – and they know doing so will be an uphill (read: near impossible) battle in the farm bill. 

As I’ve written before, however, there isn’t support for this in the Senate, so the concept is essentially DOA. For more on this broader fight about SNAP, read this and this.


FDA’s Susan Mayne to appear before a House Oversight panel

The House Oversight Committee’s panel on health care announced Thursday that Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, will appear at a subcommittee hearing on May 11 to discuss the agency’s response to the infant formula crisis.

As I reported earlier this week, Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.), had written to Mayne seeking a transcribed interview after the subcommittee wasn’t able to secure a hearing date that worked for both parties. 

“I am pleased that Dr. Mayne has at last agreed to testify before the Subcommittee,” McClain said. “Her testimony is critical to our investigation into the nationwide formula crisis. We are going to finally get answers we need related to the FDA’s internal failures that led our nation to the formula crisis, actions the FDA has or has not taken to prevent a similar crisis from happening again, and concerns about the FDA’s review of the crisis which was not independently conducted.” 

Here’s more on this committee and infant formula oversight.


 A new keeper of the Senate Candy Desk

This week the Senate got a new host for its candy desk: Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). If you’ve never heard of the Senate candy desk, let me fill you in: It’s a desk on the Senate floor stocked with candy, where lawmakers – regardless of party – can stop by for a sweet treat. 

The tradition dates back to the 1960s – and it’s one of those foodie things on Capitol Hill that reporters love. Snacks can play a role in camaraderie, even during these highly partisan times. 

As keeper of the snack desk, Sen. Young is highlighting products from candy companies in Indiana, including Albanese gummies and American Licorice’s Sour Punch Straws, per the National Confectioners Association. 

Fun fact: There have been many hosts of the candy desk over the years. Interestingly, all of them have been Republican (except for Sen. James Jeffords between 1993 and 2995, who is listed as an R and independent.) Historical rundown here

Somewhat related side note: One of my favorite stories I’ve ever written was about black-market snack trading on Capitol Hill. If you work on the Hill, you might enjoy this deep cut


What I’m reading

Senator Warren calls for Vilsack to bar Brazil’s JBS from US contracts (Bloomberg). “US Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Jamie Raskin are urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reconsider a decision to not block meat giant JBS SA from getting government contracts due to the Brazilian company’s ‘history of criminal misconduct,’” reports Tatiana Freitas. “The prominent progressives sent a letter to Vilsack on Wednesday asking him to revisit a decision to not initiate US Department of Agriculture’s suspension and debarment powers against JBS and the Brazilian agribusiness firm that controls the meat supplier, J&F Investimentos.”

A huge amount of US food is grown in the desert using water from a river that’s drying up (Vox). “In the Imperial Valley of California, humans have transformed the desert into an agricultural oasis. What was once parched ground is now rows of lettuce, carrots, and cabbage, or fields of alfalfa,” reports Benji Jones. “What makes this region so lush is the Colorado River, a water source that lies another 60 miles east along the Arizona border … The region — which includes the Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley, and Yuma, Arizona, encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland — grows as much as 90 percent of all leafy vegetables consumed in the US between November and March. Chances are, the main ingredients of any salad or vegetable soup you’ve had during winter came from here. And they were likely grown with water from the Colorado River. But a big problem looms: The river is vanishing.”

Got Wood Milk? Aubrey Plaza’s artisanal venture spoofs plant-based alternatives to dairy (AdWeek). “In a new ad from MilkPEP (short for Milk Processor Education Program), the White Lotus star announces her latest role as co-founder of ‘Wood Milk,’ a product she describes as ‘The world’s first and only milk made from wood,’” reports Brittaney Kiefer. “‘Have you ever looked at a tree and thought, ‘Can I drink this?’’ the Parks and Recreation alum asks while staring lovingly at her muse and caressing various other timber. ‘I did!’” Not everyone loved the ad, however. After some negative feedback from fans, the actress turned off comments to the video on Instagram.


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