Why FDA’s foods revamp is getting mixed reviews

FDA unveiled its reorg plans, but not everyone is sold. Today: USDA to release school nutrition update with new cap on sugar. Plus, Democratic lawmakers urge more action on heavy metals in baby food.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf stands against a wall of windows at the agency. FDA photo.

Photo courtesy of the FDA.

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix. It’s been a busy week. If you’re not yet a paid subscriber, you missed my rundown of FDA’s plans to reorganize the foods side of the agency, which sent right as the news broke on Tuesday. Subscribe now to avoid missing future coverage.

Food Fix in the news: I joined Washington Post columnists Alyssa Rosenberg and Heather Long for a Twitter Spaces discussion on the debate over the FDA’s foods program. Listen here. I also unpacked the FDA news on The Briefing with Steve Scully and The Majority Report with Sam Seder (plus heavy metals in baby food). 

This week, I also moderated a panel on the farm bill and nutrition, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, that was streamed on C-SPAN. You can watch it here.

Oh, and I heard Food Fix was cited in a congressional hearing this week, but I’m not sure which one. If you caught it, please let me know!

As always, I welcome feedback. Reply to this email or shoot me a note: helena@foodfix.co.

Alright, let’s get to it –



Today, in Food Fix: 

– FDA unveiled its reorg plans. Not everyone is sold.

– Today: USDA to release school nutrition update with new cap on sugar

– Democratic lawmakers urge more action on heavy metals in baby food


Why FDA’s foods revamp is getting mixed reviews

After several months of intense scrutiny and debate, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on Tuesday rolled out a new plan to reorganize the foods side of the agency. 

I won’t rehash all the details (see Tuesday’s newsletter), but in short the FDA plans to put a deputy commissioner clearly in charge of food at the agency and to centralize leadership and decision-making – as it’s become increasingly clear the current structure is not working. (Note: If you’re new to this issue, I recommend reading this big story I wrote last year, which found major problems with the FDA’s foods program and helped spark this entire reckoning.) 

Califf told reporters Tuesday he believes the FDA’s new reorg plan will “fundamentally transform the way the FDA oversees the U.S. food supply.”

It’s certainly a big change – and one virtually everyone agreed was needed – but a lot of consumer advocacy and industry leaders aren’t sold on the details. The biggest point of contention: The agency’s proposal doesn’t move food-safety inspections fully under the new centralized “Human Foods Program,” instead leaving this work (along with food import surveillance and other related functions) under another the Office of Regulatory Affairs arm of the agency. 

Roberta Wagner, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association, told the Wall Street Journal that the infant formula incident illustrated why it’s problematic to separate the inspection force from other parts of the foods program. “They need to be connected at the hip,” said Wagner. 

How it played in the press: Just about every media story I saw about the FDA’s announcement credited the agency for making a big change … while also noting that the reorg doesn’t go as far as many stakeholders wanted. Here’s a sampling of headlines:

FDA revamping foods program to move past ‘constant turmoil’ (Associated Press) 

Following criticism, FDA proposes redesign of its human food program (CNN)

FDA proposes overhaul in wake of baby formula shortage (Wall Street Journal) 

FDA chief: No one getting fired over baby formula crisis (Politico) 

Devil in the details of FDA’s new Human Foods Program (Agri-Pulse)

Critics have questions: I expect the broad coalition that called for full unification of the foods program – including activities like food inspections and lab functions – will be asking FDA a lot of questions about how its reorg plan will work. Many of their questions will likely center on how much control a deputy commissioner role will really have over food inspections and other food safety activities housed in the arm that’s staying separate. 

WaPo ed board unimpressed: The Washington Post editorial board – which is independent from the newsroom – on Wednesday called FDA’s reorganization “a major disappointment.”

The editorial reads: “The new deputy commissioner position would not even have authority over all food safety and nutrition,” noting that the Office of Regulatory Affairs will still handle food safety inspections.

“On a call with reporters, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock spent 45 minutes trying to explain which powers this new deputy would have and which authorities the Office of Regulatory Affairs’ leader would exercise,” the editorial continued. “The purpose of this reorganization is to create a clear leader overseeing human food safety and a streamlined reporting process. It needs to be simple. This proposed change does not achieve that.”

The Washington Post editorial board, for its part, has forcefully backed the idea of taking food completely out of the FDA to separate it from the sprawling agency that has long been more focused on drugs and other medical products. 

Thought bubble: Yanking food out of the FDA is not in the cards right now, but I’ve been surprised by how much traction this once-longshot concept now has behind the scenes. If things don’t start functioning better at FDA and another crisis hits, I could see this inching into the realm of the possible. 

What about nutrition? Califf repeatedly emphasized the importance of nutrition when laying out these plans, which I found notable as the vast majority of funding at FDA is dedicated toward food safety, not nutrition efforts. The commissioner expressed disappointment, for example, that no reporters asked about nutrition during the press briefing.

“It’s such an important part of what the FDA does,” Califf told reporters. “I just want to make that point that I hope there will be a lot more attention paid to it in a country where we are seeing this dramatic decline in life expectancy, much of it rooted in chronic disease that has a large part of its basis in nutrition.”

Part of FDA’s proposed reorg is creating a new Center for Excellence in Nutrition within the FDA. When I interviewed Califf earlier this week, I asked him about that move and whether it would elevate nutrition at the agency. 

“It’s got to be elevated,” Califf told Food Fix. “It needs more funding for the work that needs to be done. We need leaders who will be very persuasive with government. Congress doesn’t necessarily agree with itself on what to do with nutrition. As a cardiologist, it’s painful to see the decline of our health largely due to these kinds of issues.”

Listen in: For anyone curious to learn more, you can listen to the FDA’s press briefing on YouTube. Reporters had a lot of questions about what, exactly, is included in the reorg – we expect more details from FDA next month.


USDA expected to release school nutrition update with new cap on sugar

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is holding a virtual event at 12 ET today to “announce major steps USDA is taking to support and enhance the health of America’s children through nutritious school meals,” per the department.

A new limit on sugar: I expect USDA to release a proposed rule to update school meal nutrition standards with a new limit on how much added sugar can be served. There is currently no limit on sugar.

I don’t yet have the details, but the Dietary Guidelines recommend that individuals not consume more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars, for example. If USDA adopts this (these meals are supposed to follow the guidelines), it would be a significant crackdown on sugar in American schools. 

Sugary meals: A USDA report published last year found that more than 92 percent of school breakfasts and 69 percent of school lunches exceed this 10 percent limit.

Salt and whole grains: I also expect USDA to propose further reductions in sodium over time and a greater focus on whole grains in school meals. There will also be an increased mandate to source domestic foods. More details to come soon. 

A refresher: Roughly a decade ago, the Obama administration updated school nutrition rules to increase fruits and vegetables, cut down on sodium and mandate more whole grains (kicking up a big ol’ fight in DC). Many of those standards were suspended during the pandemic and schools are now working to get back to meeting them under transitional rules

What’s next: USDA leaders have previously said the new update for nutrition is not expected to kick in until the 2024-25 school year to give schools plenty of time to prepare.

The USDA roundtable will be livestreamed at 12 ET at usda.gov/live. After the event, Vilsack is holding a press call with reporters. 


Democratic lawmakers urge more action on heavy metals in baby food

Four Democrats on Capitol Hill – Sens. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.) and Tony Cárdenas (Calif.) – are again urging FDA to take a harder line against heavy metals in baby foods. 

The letter came just days after FDA released new limits for lead in baby foods. The lawmakers called this “welcome progress” but noted it came “much later than expected” according to the FDA’s own timeline as part of its “Closer to Zero” initiative to reduce toxic elements in baby and toddler foods. 

“It is alarming that little tangible progress has been made on the Closer to Zero action plan, despite the seriousness and severity of this issue, and that to date, FDA has only issued draft guidance on one of the heavy metals,” they write. 

Last summer the lawmakers sent a letter to FDA urging more oversight and stricter standards. 

Mixed reaction: While we’re here, FDA’s new limits for lead in baby food have been met with a mixture of praise and disappointment. As I noted when the news broke, Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund, called the move “progress,” noting that it went beyond Europe’s standards, though Neltner said there was room to do better in some key categories. 

Charlotte Brody, national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, was not pleased with the levels. “These proposed action levels don’t do enough to get us closer to zero,” she said, in a statement, arguing that they amount to “a rubber stamp on the status quo — signifying that the current levels of lead in baby food are ‘close enough.’ Why has the FDA’s Closer to Zero program spent years to create proposed guidance that won’t do enough to make baby food safer?”

Greg Shearson, CEO of Cerebelly, a baby food company, called the announcement “a step forward,” adding, “But as an industry, we need higher standards when it comes to testing. We are glad to see the FDA continuing to take steps toward cleaner baby food, but we cannot stop until the nutrients we feed our babies are void of toxins.” 

Event next month: For those wanting to dig into this issue further, FDA is holding a webinar March 2 on its draft guidance


What I’m reading

The end of a pandemic-era boost to SNAP benefits is compounding the burden low-income households already face (NBC). This story by Elizabeth Chuck and Safia Samee Ali looks at concerns that the end of stepped up Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits could lead to an increase in food insecurity. “Everybody toward the bottom of the income scale is just facing really significant economic pressure right now,” they write. “The discontinuation of these programs, in some ways, couldn’t have come at a worse time.”

Wegovy’s popularity is now sparking a debate on the causes of obesity (Women’s Health). A recent 60 Minutes segment on obesity treatment has kicked off a very intense debate on the internet about the causes of obesity, particularly on the role of genetics versus lifestyle. “The truth is obesity is complicated,” reports Amelia Harnish. “The research suggests that both genetics and the environment are to blame for the skyrocketing rates of obesity over the past few decades. Not only that, exactly how and how much either factor contributes to obesity can be very individual.”

Oatly debuts carbon footprint labeling on U.S. products (Food Dive). Oatly, maker of oat-based dairy alternative products, has launched “climate footprint labels for four of its Oatgurt products in North America,” per this story from Chris Casey. “While carbon labels have not yet been widely adopted for U.S. consumer products, several have expressed interest or introduced them,” Casey noted. “CPG giant Unilever said in 2021 it planned to test them in two dozen of its products in North America and Europe.” This is something to watch: We’ll see more of this labeling in the U.S. in the future.


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