Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! If this newsletter didn’t land in your inbox on Tuesday, you’re not a paid subscriber yet. You missed my latest on how Washington is getting unusually – and brutally – honest about what’s wrong at the FDA, among other interesting things. Subscribe so you don’t miss out.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Yesterday, I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to talk about the White House conference and why I founded Food Fix, and take viewer questions on everything from food insecurity to vertical farming. You can watch the segment here. I also joined Slate’s What Next podcast to discuss FDA’s continued lack of transparency over its handling of the infant formula situation – host Mary Harris even asked me if I’m popular at FDA. Give it a listen.
Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– Cory Booker is pumped FDA might take a look at reducing sugar
– A new project tracks where experts in academia agree, from organics to climate change
– Consumer advocates, industry and state groups again urge reorg at FDA
– Sen. Richard Burr hammers the FDA for ‘severely inadequate’ internal review on infant formula
Why Cory Booker is fired up about sugar – and bipartisanship
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a former presidential candidate and current chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s nutrition panel, has lots of thoughts on food and health. You can find him talking about policy, exercise and food labels on TikTok, where he has a few hundred-thousand followers, and on Twitter, where he has nearly five million. Food is very much a part of his platform, both politically and personally.
I caught up with Sen. Booker last week after the White House conference, where, as a backer of the effort, he spoke on a panel alongside Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Ambassador Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Some of his remarks during the panel were posted on TikTok.
Here’s the Q&A from our conversation. Booker shares why he’s excited about sugar reduction, where he sees space for bipartisanship and what’s brewing ahead of the 2023 farm bill. This has been edited for length and clarity.
Helena: In the new national strategy on nutrition and hunger, there’s mention of the FDA taking a look at setting voluntary sugar reduction targets. It sure seems like that was influenced by your letter urging stronger action on both sugar and sodium. What did you think about that being included?
Sen. Booker: I was excited. We’ve been advocating from the beginning that yes, this conference should be about hunger. But the crisis of diet related diseases, the nutrition crisis in our country, we have to address it and take really strong stances. Seeing the President of the United States talk about a nutrition crisis, to hear him talk about medically tailored meals – specifically mentioning them! – and to see that the FDA is going to take specific actions, that’s a huge change in American policy. It’s the kind of momentum that excites me.
We often hear about the last conference and how many big changes came out of that, but we also tend to view that event as more bipartisan than this one was. There weren’t very many Republicans in attendance. You noted when you appeared on stage with Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that there are places where the two of you agree. Where are you finding common ground?
Braun and I have had a lot of really good conversations about how the private sector has been able to begin to bend the cost curve of health care costs by creating better access and incentives towards healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
We know that when folks eat better foods – higher nutrition content, higher quality foods – they do have lower health care costs. If you’re a fiscal hawk, this is something that’s really important to you. Everybody knows that Medicaid, Medicare, overall health care costs for the government are continuing to go up. I’m encouraged that there’s a lot of bipartisan space here. I’m really hoping to be able to find substantive things that we can do.
The FDA has a lot of their own authority that they can be using in this area to help public health. There’s a lot of things that we have to do on the legislative side as lawmakers, but the administration could do a lot to put the “F” back in the FDA, as I said, to make it more focused on the food side – and the connection to health and well being.
I know you recently did your own sugar challenge where you gave up all added sugar from July 5 to Labor Day. Did both Democrats and Republicans come up to talk to you about that? Do you find this is something your colleagues want to talk about? What’s the response been like from the public?
The community response has been amazing. I’ve been finding more and more people in my social media feed who say ‘hey, I’m a Republican, but I follow you.’ I think we’re creating platforms that appeal to a broader swath of people. Ultimately, we had about 6,000 people take part in the sugar challenge. For me personally, it was just fascinating: I felt this improvement in my health and well-being.
Are you back to eating sugar?
I went on – not a sugar bender – but like I had a dessert for the first time in a long time and I just felt crappy. I’ve really moderated my intake. I’m nowhere near where I used to be.
You chair the Senate Agriculture nutrition subcommittee – I know that you’re currently trying to reschedule a food as medicine hearing. Is there anything else coming up?
My team and I were talking today about trying to do a hearing to follow up on the conference. (Note: TBD said Booker’s staff – stay tuned.)
Certainly one of the big questions coming out of this conference is: what can actually get done? It’s really hard to do anything on the Hill, even reauthorizing school meals programs has been a struggle. Where do you see Congress doing anything that moves the dial on these issues?
I think you’re going to see a lot of this play out in the farm bill.
Do you think that the folks in the room at the White House Conference are going to engage in the farm bill? A lot of these groups don’t traditionally show up for farm bill cycles.
I really believe so. I may be a prisoner of hope. But I just see a lot more action around this farm bill than I did five years ago. A lot of folks seem to be really, really engaged and wanting to try to shape food policy. The public consciousness has grown.
I hate to ask you this question – people often ask me what I eat or don’t and I won’t tell them – but it was kind of a thing when you became the first vegan on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Are you still vegan?
Absolutely. When I ran for president my staff thought it would become a big issue. And it didn’t. People didn’t care. You know, except for vegans that showed up, from rural Iowa to Mill Towns in New Hampshire, South Carolina. Vegans would show up to all my town halls.
I think maybe we learned vegans aren’t a big enough voting bloc to swing things.
No, they didn’t carry me. (Laughter.) But what I did see was that it just wasn’t an issue. In Iowa, I had farm groups supporting me, like the farmers union.
Tracking where experts in academia agree, from organics to climate change
There’s a new project out today devoted to tracking where leading nutrition and agriculture experts in academia agree – and where they don’t. The project aims to help us make better sense of things, instead of relying on news coverage of one-off studies, which can be so confusing!
Apollo Academic Surveys, founded by data scientist Chris Said (a data scientist at Stitch Fix by day), first looked at asteroids and risks of potential collisions with earth. Now it’s turned its attention to nutrition and agriculture. The project is modeled after IGM, an initiative from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business that tracks leading economists’ views on policy and other issues. Apollo’s nutrition and agriculture polling questions were devised by Will Masters, a food economist at Tufts University.
Initial findings: The nutrition and agriculture poll found a pretty broad consensus on the “limited benefits of organic certification.” About 78 percent of respondents agreed it would have no effect on health (pretty broad consensus for a thorny food issue). There was also near universal agreement that more cooking at home is beneficial for health. It did find more polarizing views, however. For example, the poll asked about the impact of limiting crop chemicals and results were split: 43 percent said such a move would be harmful and 44 percent said it would be helpful for the wellbeing of Americans.
One tidbit that caught my eye: Broad consensus among those surveyed that sugar is not great for our health, though it gets a bit more complicated from there. Here’s a chart on specific nutrients:
Consumer advocates, industry and state groups again urge reorg at the FDA
An usually broad coalition has, once again, linked arms to publicly support a reorganization at the FDA amid increasing scrutiny of the agency’s dysfunction and leadership problems.
A long list of leading consumer, industry and state groups sent a letter to inform the review of the FDA’s foods program that’s currently underway by the Reagan-Udall Foundation. The missive specifically calls for creating a deputy commissioner role at FDA with full authority over the foods program, including the divisions that handle veterinary medicine and inspections, instead of the current, more decentralized leadership structure.
My take: As I’ve said before, it’s not typical for these groups to work together, and it really speaks to the broad consensus that things are not working well at FDA. Whether the review panel overseen by the foundation or the agency heeds these calls for a significant overhaul remains to be seen.
Sen. Richard Burr hammers FDA for ‘severely inadequate’ internal review on infant formula
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions – which has jurisdiction over the FDA – on Thursday sent a scathing letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf over the agency’s “severely inadequate internal review and continued failure to answer for its role in the devastating infant formula shortage.”
“Before FDA can get one more dollar, it needs to show more responsibility and accountability – namely, that the agency can be responsible stewards of the expansive authorities and significant funding Congress has already provided and that it will hold itself accountable for its own mistakes,” Burr wrote.
“I cannot support rewarding FDA with additional resources after a failure of this magnitude, especially when this report demonstrates that the agency does not take accountability seriously,” warned Burr. “Parents across the country should never again face the fear and panic of another formula shortage.”
Harsh words: Threatening funding is about as serious as you can get in Congress. Burr is clearly not pleased with the agency’s response. To catch up on what I characterized as a “risky game,” read my recent coverage of FDA’s lack of accountability on infant formula.
What I’m reading
Beer, Wine and Spirits Makers Face Push to Say What Is in Their Drinks (Wall Street Journal). Consumer advocates have long pushed to require some nutrition labeling on alcoholic beverages (long-exempt!) and the Treasury Department is now considering it, reports Katrina Peterson. Consumer groups are suing the department to ramp up the pressure.
Hunger and Obesity Are the Same Problem in the US (Bloomberg). Faye Flam’s analysis looks at the complex relationship between hunger and obesity. Flam discusses new research from David Ludwig, an endocrinologist at Harvard School of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital, that points to the role of insulin.
The U.S. should never have another baby formula shortage (Washington Post). This opinion piece by Alyssa Rosenberg walks through policy changes that might help prevent the next infant formula crisis. Rosenberg proposes things like making Cronobacter a nationally notifiable disease and improving plant inspections.
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