We spend billions on SNAP. What are we buying?

First in Food Fix: A new bill aims to show us what foods SNAP buys. Formula maker Bobbie becomes No. 3 player. Aspartame in the hot seat – again. And what cell-cultivated meat actually tastes like.

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Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! For you newcomers, my name is Helena Bottemiller Evich. I’m a longtime (and award-winning) reporter covering food policy. I left Politico last year to launch my own thing, and here we are with the 89th edition of Food Fix. Wild! 

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– A new bill aims to show us what foods SNAP buys

– Formula maker Bobbie becomes No. 3 player

– Aspartame in the hot seat – again

– Food Fix tries cell-cultivated meat


A bipartisan push to measure nutrition in SNAP

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have teamed up to introduce a bill that would require USDA to report on what foods are being purchased in the $145 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – an idea that may seem simple but could spark a blowout policy fight here in Washington. 

The legislation, expected to be released later today, would also require that USDA annually measure and report on “nutrition security” – essentially access to affordable nutritious foods – and diet quality, just like USDA already reports annually on “food security,” a measure of adequate food access for an “active, healthy life.” This might sound like an wonky distinction – nutrition security vs. food security – and it sort of is, but the argument here is basically that improving diet quality should be a core goal of SNAP, which has long been more focused on food access.

Data, data: The most controversial part of the bill would require USDA to regularly collect data on what foods are being purchased with SNAP (looking at a representative sample, reported in the aggregate) and then release a report every four years. At this point you might be thinking, wait, do we really not know what’s being purchased with SNAP? 

Yes, and no. 

The only somewhat recent national picture we have of food purchases in the program comes from a 2016 USDA study based on 2011 data. That study found that soft drinks were the top purchased item for SNAP households. Number two? Fluid milk. It was flipped for non-SNAP households: Milk was number one, then soft drinks. Overall, the study concluded that SNAP and non-SNAP households don’t differ much in their overall food purchases. Still, the findings mean that taxpayers buy several billion dollars worth of sugar-sweetened beverages each year, something that gives plenty of people pause, to say the least. 

Why is this all so touchy? Reporting on or even talking about what SNAP households purchase with SNAP is an uncomfortable topic in D.C. Anti-hunger and food industry groups see it as a way to crack the door open to maybe – eventually – one day banning certain foods from the program. To be clear, this bill doesn’t ban anything in SNAP, but since the data could be used to inform future policies, supporters of SNAP choice will see it as a threat. 

There’s a lot of lobbying on Capitol Hill about this right now, in part because Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee have been kicking this issue up ahead of the farm bill being reauthorized. This new legislation – which aims to hitch a ride to the farm bill – will only add to the industry freak out.

Gimme dat data: Supporters of the bill contend that they just want the data – and it could be used for plenty of other policies, like better incentivizing healthy food purchases or reigning in how food is marketed in store to SNAP recipients. 

“We need timely, comprehensive data to determine SNAP’s impact on nutrition security and diet quality in order to effectively promote access to nutritious food, improve the well-being of SNAP recipients, and help address our nation’s alarming increase in chronic diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” said Sen. Booker, in a statement.

Sen. Rubio was a little more blunt: “In the midst of America’s obesity crisis, taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be spent on junk food. This legislation would strengthen the SNAP program by requiring the USDA to collect data on the impact of SNAP. This data will provide a clearer picture of how SNAP can be used to improve recipient’s health and ensure the program promotes a healthy, nutritious diet.”

The endorsement list: A range of prominent health groups have already endorsed the bill, including: American Heart Association; American Society of Nutrition; Bipartisan Policy Center; Center for Science in the Public Interest; Hunger Free America; International Fresh Produce Association; José Andrés, chef and founder of the Global Food Institute at George Washington University; Mission: Readiness; Nemours Children’s Health; Nourish Science; the Nutrition Policy Initiative at Tufts University Partnership for a Healthier America; and the Center for Black Health and Equity. Find a one pager on the bill here.


Formula maker Bobbie becomes No. 3 player

Upstart formula brand Bobbie announced this week it raised $70 million to buy Nature’s One, another organic infant formula company, positioning the combined company to be the No. 3 fully integrated brand in the U.S. behind Abbott (Similac) and Mead Johnson (Enfamil), which still dominate the market. 

A new formula plant: The move means Bobbie has acquired the only new formula manufacturing plant that’s been built in the U.S. in decades. (Many of our infant formula plants are quite old.) With more capacity, Bobbie says it will soon be able to serve 15 percent of the non-WIC formula market, up from around 5 percent today. Bobbie will still use Perrigo to manufacture its formula, but add much more capacity with Nature’s One’s new plant in Ohio. (Perrigo is the third largest manufacturer of infant formula, but mostly as a co-manufacturer for store brands and others.) 

Concentration nation: While there’s been lots of policy chatter throughout the infant formula crisis, the fact is that this industry has not changed much in the wake of the crisis we just went through. The sector remains highly concentrated: Abbott and Mead Johnson alone control roughly three fourths of the market. Top officials openly acknowledge that a similar crisis could happen again because concentration of production leaves the sector vulnerable to disruption. (More on that here.)

Startup shakeup: Bobbie founder and CEO Laura Modi told me she sees their acquisition as a move toward a more resilient and competitive market.

“This is essentially the biggest diversification move in U.S. infant formula history,” Modi said. The feedback she’s gotten from other business leaders on the acquisition has been taking a wider view of the deal, she said: “They’re not just saying, ‘Hey, this is great for Bobbie,’ they are saying, ‘This is what the industry needs.’ We started the business to reform this industry.” 

TechCrunch has more on the acquisition. Press release with all the details here.


Aspartame in the hot seat – again

The widely used no-calorie sweetener was designated a “possible carcinogen” this week by a prominent World Health Organization (WHO) panel, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

We knew this was coming thanks to Reuters’ scoop two weeks ago, but wow, did it break through on Thursday. I got breaking news alerts from the New York Times and NPR, and I’m sure there were others based on how many texts I got from family and friends asking me about this news.

Beyond headlines: Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners have long sparked a fair amount of controversy. That said, I do think it’s important to read past the headlines here and put this latest news in context, if you’re trying to figure out what to make of this. 

The New York Times, for example, ran this news alert headline: “Aspartame is a possible cause of cancer in humans, a WHO agency says,” but dig into the story and author Christina Jewett notes high up that there is some disagreement on this issue: “A second WHO committee, though, held steady on its assessment of a safe level of aspartame consumption. By some calculations using the panel’s standard, a person weighing 150 pounds could avoid a risk of cancer but still drink about a dozen cans of diet soda a day.”

Jewett also notes that FDA, which approved aspartame for the U.S. market, issued “an unusual criticism of the global agency’s findings and reiterated its longstanding position that the sweetener is safe.” 

Details, details: NPR’s Allison Aubrey talked to several experts to unpack what the latest news means and why it’s all a bit complicated. Find that here.


Food Fix tries cell-cultivated meat

Thursday evening I joined a small group of reporters from Reuters, NPR, Vox and the Washington Post for a tasting of GOOD Meat’s newly-approved cell-cultivated chicken at China Chilcano by José Andrés.

The cell-cultivated chicken will be featured on an exclusive tasting menu opening for limited reservations July 25, and truly they will be limited due to production levels. (Read up on scale challenges.)  Though restaurant staff say they’ve been flooded with inquiries, it sounds like there will only be a handful of spots available each week. 

Tastes like chicken? It really does. The flavor is almost exactly the same as chicken, but the texture is not quite there. I had expected the texture to be far off, as these were made to mimic whole cuts of meat and served as a grilled kebab. But it was pretty damn close. This current version of GOOD Meat chicken is somewhere north of 60 percent cultivated cells; the rest of the plant-based ingredients help with the structure of the product. 

Of course, whether this type of product can ever be made at sufficient scale still remains a question. 

Check it out: I posted pictures from the tasting on Threads and Twitter.


What I’m reading

WHO recommends policies to restrict food marketing to kids (Food Politics). “The World Health Organization has just come out with a new report on protecting children from the harms of marketing unhealthy food to kids,” writes Marion Nestle. “Across studies, the most frequently marketed food categories were fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolate and confectionery, salty and savoury snacks, sweet bakery items and snacks, breakfast cereals, and desserts.” The WHO recommends mandatory policies to rein in marketing.

Biden administration commits $300 million to measuring farm emissions (Reuters). “The Biden administration will spend $300 million to better quantify greenhouse gas emissions generated by agriculture and the potential carbon savings of certain farming practices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said on Wednesday,” per Leah Douglas. “Agriculture accounts for about 10% of U.S. emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The administration has said cutting farm emissions is critical to reaching its goal of net zero emissions by 2050 to fight climate change.”

The Biden Administration Bets Big on ‘Climate Smart’ Agriculture (Yale360). “A new kind of food may soon be arriving on grocery store shelves: climate smart. Under the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, a nascent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, this amalgam of farming methods aims to keep the American agricultural juggernaut steaming ahead while slashing the sector’s immense greenhouse gas footprint,” reports Gabriel Popkin. “But the high-profile effort has also come under fire. Some researchers fear that the agency lacks a workable plan for measuring and verifying the impacts of the practices federal dollars will be paying for. Others say science has yet to prove that climate-smart practices truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Idaho opts out of nearly $15 million that would feed children this summer. Why? (Idaho Statesman). “Idaho has decided not to participate in a federal program that would have provided $14.8 million to feed low-income students during the summer, a decision that impacts about 123,000 children in need, according to the Food Research and Action Center. The program, known as summer Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), provides meals for children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school,” writes Noble Brigham. “Though Idaho participated fully in 2021, and partly last year, state agencies said they will no longer be involved in the program.”


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