Happy New Year from Food Fix! I hope you got some real downtime over the holidays. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you missed Tuesday’s edition, which unpacked how Congress finally did something big on food waste.
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Food Fix in the news: In case you missed it, my special report in POLITICO last weekend looked at how little infant-formula oversight has changed in the wake of the infant illnesses and deaths this past year. It’s worth a read (content warning: infant loss and injury).
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– An explainer on Coca-Cola’s rough week online
– Sen. Debbie Stabenow to retire, leaving a food and nutrition gap in the Senate
– FDA back in the spotlight for inaction on heavy metals in baby food
Why Coca-Cola is getting dragged on the internet
One of America’s most iconic brands found itself in the middle of an unexpected social media dumpster fire this week.
Calley Means, co-founder of TrueMed, an early stage startup aiming to help people use HSA and FSA funds to buy healthy food, sleep and exercise products, posted a Twitter thread alleging that Coca-Cola had essentially paid the NAACP and other groups to paint opponents of soda taxes and food stamp purchase restrictions as racist.
“Early in my career, I consulted for Coke to ensure sugar taxes failed and soda was included in food stamp funding,” Means tweeted. “I say Coke’s policies are evil because I saw inside the room. The first step in [the] playbook was paying the NAACP + other civil rights groups to call opponents racist.”
The post has gone viral with more than 11 million views.
Well-known activist investor Bill Ackman added fuel to the fire by sharing the thread with his own take (garnering more than 3 million views): “.@CocaCola and @PepsiCo have caused more harm to global health than likely any other company. Just look at the correlation between diabetes/obesity and soft drink consumption. It is remarkable that the plaintiffs bar has not yet won a massive judgment against them.”
Don’t write off social: Many people, particularly those in Washington, don’t appreciate the scale of social media and can be quick to dismiss its impact. So let’s put these numbers into context: Good Morning America gets around 3 million eyeballs per day. A quality, high-traffic news article might get a few hundred thousand views.
From Twitter to TV: Fox News producers asked Means to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show, which he did on Jan. 4. In the segment, Means blasts not just Coca-Cola, but also the NAACP, the Heritage Foundation and academic research at universities. From what I could tell, Means got a fair bit of pushback for going on a show that regularly purveys misinformation and platforms white supremacist views (yet is also one of the most-watched cable news shows in the country).
“If @MSNBC or @CNN want to cover the country’s most important issue, we’re more than happy to chat,” Means tweeted Thursday. He told Food Fix he’s gotten inquiries from more than 40 media outlets and podcasts about the thread.
Justin Mares, TrueMed’s other co-founder and founder of Kettle & Fire, a bone broth company, appeared on a different Fox News show this week that was mostly aimed at criticizing the Tufts Food Compass, which the host incorrectly calls the government’s new food pyramid.
In the family: Means’ sister, Casey Means, is the chief medical officer and co-founder of Levels, a buzzy startup selling continuous glucose monitors that raised $38 million in Series A funding last year. Casey, a physician by training, wrote an op-ed in the Hill last year calling on President Biden to “declare a food and nutrition war” to tackle diet-related diseases. The siblings are currently co-writing a book about food as medicine for Penguin.
Which PR firm? I asked Means which consulting firm he was referring to when he made these allegations on Twitter and he declined to specify. His LinkedIn shows he worked for Edelman about a decade ago, so I reached out to them to see if they wanted to comment. A spokesperson said the firm was “working with and had a longstanding client relationship with a major competitor to Coke” at the time, but did not respond to questions about whether the American Beverage Association was a client. (I also reached out to Coca-Cola and the NAACP seeking comment and no one got back to me. If they do, I’ll update this post.)
The American Beverage Association, for its part, was tweeting this week about its voluntary efforts to cut sugar consumption: “We promised parents that we would change the beverages offered in schools, and we delivered. We voluntarily removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools, ultimately reducing beverage calories shipped to K-12 schools by more than 94%.” (This refers to a 2006 commitment the industry made with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to pull sweetened drinks from schools by 2009.)
Congressional interest? Means told me in an interview he was surprised the thread, that he wrote quickly while feeding his son a bottle, went viral. He’s now getting contacted by lawyers, billionaires, advocates and lawmakers. He wouldn’t tell me which lawmakers had slid into his DMs, but said the list spans both sides of the aisle, including four House members and one Senator.
“There is an appetite to look at congressional investigations,” Means said.
Outside Washington, Means said he’s seeing a lot of interest in Ackman’s idea that beverage companies could face liability for health risks. Longtime food policy watchers will recall this “let’s sue Big Food” idea gets floated occasionally, but it’s never gained any traction or legal muster. Beverage makers would be the first to point out that while sugary drink consumption has been in decline for some time, diet-related disease rates haven’t budged.
Context: I don’t have any independent reporting to confirm or dispute the specific allegations in the viral thread, but I can tell you that the folks who follow this stuff closely were not particularly surprised by it. Philanthropic grants from beverage makers to various civil rights groups have been documented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and others.
Thought bubble: If you’re thinking, “Does any of this matter? Sounds like a bunch of tech and business bros complaining about big corporations on the internet,” … you’re not wrong. But this is also about a narrative that’s breaking through. I saw many other people connecting this thread to the idea of limiting what you can buy with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (AKA food stamps), something that’s sure to be at least discussed this farm bill cycle with the right flank gaining more influence in the House.
We expect USDA to propose an update to the nutrition standards for school meals programs that serve tens of millions of children each day, likely this month or next. If USDA does propose a limit for sugar, as many groups have requested, we could soon be looking at a fight over how much sugar can be served in cafeterias. And if these tech and business voices outside of D.C. engage in those debates, that will be something to watch.
Heritage under fire: Means continued to lob policy bombs on Twitter in the wake of his viral Coca-Cola thread. On Thursday, he alleged the Heritage Foundation – where he interned 15 years ago – was engaged in pay-to-play research on behalf of corporations, including on the soda tax issue. “Heritage does not engage in contract research – we are not for sale,” a spokesperson said in response, adding that corporate support is only 2 percent of contributions the group receives.
Debbie Stabenow to retire, leaving food and nutrition gap in Senate
The big news on Capitol Hill this week – you know, other than still not having a Speaker of the House! – is that Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced she will not seek reelection in 2024.
Stabenow said it was time for a new generation of leadership in her state, adding that she’d like to spend more time with her family and her 96-year-old mom. I’d heard speculation about this possibility for months, particularly after some key staff departures from the ag committee, but I didn’t believe it would actually happen.
There will be more to come on Stabenow and her legacy, I’m sure, but suffice it to say: This is very a big deal in the food and ag world. And it leaves a leadership vacuum on the Democratic side.
Stabenow, the number three Democrat in the Senate, has long been a force on Capitol Hill, working across the aisle on everything from farm bills to school meals. Stabenow played a pivotal role in getting billions in climate and conservation funding for ag in the Inflation Reduction Act. She recently negotiated a permanent extension of Summer EBT, a program that gives grocery benefits to low-income households in the summer to replace school meals. That deal, included in the omnibus, will likely be one of the only COVID-era nutrition policies that lasts.
Refresher: The billions in stepped up COVID-19 SNAP benefits, known as emergency allotments, are slated to expire at the end of next month. Ending the extra payments early is what helped pay for the Summer EBT program. More on all that here.
Farm bill bets: I think Stabenow’s retirement probably raises the odds that a farm bill gets done. Maybe not on time (in 2023), but before she leaves office.
“For the next two years, I am intensely focused on continuing this important work to improve the lives of Michiganders,” Stabenow said in a statement. “This includes leading the passage of the next five-year farm bill, which determines our nation’s food and agriculture policies.”
FDA back in spotlight for inaction on heavy metals in baby food
Bloomberg Law published a deep dive Thursday that included its own testing of baby foods, finding that FDA has “dithered” as heavy metal contamination remains common in these products.
The story by Gary Harki, Celine Castronuovo, Julie Steinberg, Kaustuv Basu and Alex Ruoff is comprehensive and hard-hitting, with graphics outlining the outlet’s test results.
Here’s a snippet:
“As Congress scrutinized heavy metals in baby food in 2021, the FDA started a new program called Closer to Zero. So far, it’s only issued guidelines around juices. In that instance it set a level for lead that protects 90% of children but leaves the 10% of kids who drink the most juice still exposed to higher levels, which advocates have criticized.
Still, the creation of Closer to Zero reflects how persistent the contamination continues to be, as shown by Bloomberg Law’s testing.
The foods tested were purchased from Amazon.com, online food providers, and Washington, D.C.-area grocery stores and analyzed by an accredited laboratory that asked not to be named because it works closely with the food industry. Some of the highest toxin levels were in products containing rice, which is often found in the first solid foods parents give to their infants.”
Eyes on FDA: The story serves as a reminder that this issue is not going away. FDA has already missed its own deadline for issuing a draft limit for lead in baby foods. The proposal has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget since April.
What I’m reading
A quarter of U.S. service members have been food insecure, new report finds (CNN). Per a new report from the RAND Corporation, details Haley Britzky: “The report, released this week, said that 25.8% of Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel were food insecure. More than half of that percentage – 15.4% – were active duty troops.”
What’s wrong with school lunch in the U.S.? (AJ+). This video segment by Yara Elmjouie sounds like it’s slamming school meals in the U.S., and it certainly does that, but it also provides a pretty nuanced look at what schools are up against to improve their menus.
Child food insecurity declined significantly among Hispanic households with children in 2021 (USDA ERS). Hispanic households with children saw a significant drop in food insecurity in 2021, per this new chart from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. White households with children also saw a significant decline that year; Black, non-Hispanic households with children did not.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as a health intervention (Current Opinion in Pediatrics). Jerold Mande and Grace Flaherty argue that SNAP should be more focused on improving nutrition: “Policymakers should support healthy purchases in SNAP by pairing incentives for purchasing fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods with restrictions on unhealthy foods and sweetened beverages.”
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