Monday, January 03, 2011

Upcoming In Obama Food & Ag Initiatives

What to expect in 2011 as Washington goes back to work...
President Obama returns from the First Family's holiday vacation in Hawaii late in the afternoon on January 4th, according to the White House. On the 5th, the shellackin' 112th Congress begins, with a power shift in the House. 2010 was a very busy year in food and Ag for the Obama Administration, and 2011 will have even more activity, bipartisan...or not.

At the White House, January will be busy on the social and diplomatic front: The President and First Lady Michelle Obama will host a State Dinner on the evening of the 19th, in honor of People's Republic of China President Hu Jintao. February marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign, and new sub-initiatives and public/private sector commitments are likely to be announced.

On the technical side, there are now many new food labeling initiatives going into effect; the President is expected to sign the food safety legislation; and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be unveiled shortly. New chairmen are taking over both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees. Last, but not least, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has issued a plea for peace among dueling Ag constituencies. Below, a recap of all that's happening in Washington right now...

*New Beverage Labels

Providing parents with better information about food is a focus of the Let's Move! campaign. Last February, when Mrs. Obama launched her ambitious project, the many members of the American Beverage Association agreed to voluntarily put a clear, uniform, front-of-pack calorie label on all cans, bottles, vending and fountain machines, within two years. Sodas like the can of Coca-Cola, at top of post, with a highly visible calorie number, are now hitting store shelves across the US. The voluntary agreement was an attempt to avoid being federally regulated, and came as many states were considering taxing soda and other sugary beverages. The ABA membership includes Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr. Pepper Snapple, 7 Up, Nestle Waters and Sunny Delight.

*2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released
A joint release from USDA and Health and Human Services, the federal 2010 Dietary Guidelines were by law supposed to be issued in, er, 2010. They're now late, and will be released this month. Updated every five years, the new version of the Guidelines will be very different from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, if there have not been dramatic changes to the recommendations made by the members of the Dietary Guidelines Committee. They released a Report detailing their intentions in June of 2010.

Among other things, the Report recommended that Americans switch to a primarily plant-based diet, eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains. For all other foodstuffs, the suggestions were for less: Eating meat and poultry only in moderation; reducing the consumption of solid fats and added sugars; reducing sodium intake; and avoiding processed grains. The Report had a special focus on child and adolescent nutrition, and addressed issues such as improving food access and affordability, one of the pillars of the Let's Move! campaign. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the legislative cornerstone of the Let's Move! campaign, the Secretary of Agriculture is charged with establishing nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools that are "consistent with" the most recent version of the Dietary Guidelines. Download the June Report here. USDA in 2011 will also be releasing a new version of the MyPyramid food guide.

*New Meat Labels
On Dec. 29, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced that effective Jan. 1, 2011, packages of ground or chopped meat and poultry will feature nutrition fact panels on their labels. Additionally, whole, raw cuts of meat (such as brisket) and poultry (such as chicken breasts) will also have nutrition fact panels either on their package labels or available for consumers at the point-of-purchase.

The nutrition fact panels will include the number of calories and the grams of total fat and saturated fat a product contains. Any product that lists a lean percentage statement, such as "76% lean" on its label will also list its fat percentage, in theory making it easier for consumers to understand the amount of lean protein and fat in their purchase.

*FDA Food Safety
Modernization Act becomes law
UPDATE 3: President Obama signed the bill on Jan. 4, 2010
UPDATE 2: FDA Chief and HHS Secretary go on the record about the bill
UPDATE 1: The bill signing is Tuesday, Jan. 4
After a long, contentious battle, the food safety bill received final Congressional approval on Dec. 21, 2010, but President Obama has not yet signed it into law. The bill is a broad expansion of federal regulatory power over food, and members of the GOP are already complaining about funding the legislation, which has a long time frame for implementation. At the final press briefing before the President left for his Hawaiian vacation, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declined to name the date when President Obama will sign the bill.

"Food is obviously close to our hearts," Gibbs said, but gave no further details. On Jan. 2, in Hawaii, President Obama signed H.R. 847, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (above). Click here for a summary of the food safety legislation.

*Vilsack calls for a "new paradigm"
In an open letter to Ag stakeholders released on Dec. 30, 2010, Secretary Vilsack called for "a new paradigm of coexistence and cooperation" among farmers who grow both genetically engineered and non-GE crops, to ensure that "all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe." The letter came just two weeks after USDA completed its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa, the status of which has been tied up in litigation since 2005.

"The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty," Vilsack wrote in his letter, adding that the fight between GE and non-GE alfalfa should not be a zero sum equation.

"Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture's complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity," Vilsack wrote. He pledged that USDA will continue to bring stakeholders together "in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced," which will lead to "a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation."

It's a swell wish for the new year, but the fight over GE versus non-GE crops has raged for as long as GE seeds have been in the marketplace, and speaks to a range of issues from biodiversity through conservation through public health. Good luck to the very optimistic Secretary.

*Stabenow takes over Senate Ag
For only the second time in history, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will be led by a woman. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will be taking over the powerful committee; former chair Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) lost her seat in the midterms. Michigan has a diverse Ag economy, with one in four citizens employed in the Ag sector, and Stabenow is considered well informed, and she is well regarded. With the 2012 Farm Bill coming up, Stabenow pledged to approach the gargantuan task in a bipartisan manner.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as we begin writing a new farm bill that once again recognizes the importance of America’s agricultural economy and rural communities," Stabenow said in a statement about her chairmanship.

*Lucas takes over House Ag
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) will chair the House Agriculture Committee, and he's already issued a statement promising to hold oversight hearings to investigate the EPA, thanks to the agency's "fondness for overreaching regulations that defy Congressional intent and threaten production agriculture and rural economies.” See above: That apparently offensive EPA statement on Roundup Ready alfalfa. As for the Farm Bill, Lucas is promising legislation that reaches for the stars:

"I will work to make sure we write a market-oriented, fiscally responsible farm bill that will provide America’s farmers and ranchers with the necessary tools and certainty they need to produce the safest, most affordable, most abundant food, fiber, feed and fuel supply in the history of the world," Lucas said.

*New front-of-package food labels
In 2011, FDA is expected to issue new front-of-package guidelines for labels for food products, which will include easy to understand nutrition and calorie information. But some producers and processors are working to get out front. In October of 2010, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute, (FMI) which represent a huge number of America's major food corps, supermarkets, and processors, jointly announced that they are working on better front-of-package labeling, which will include clearer information on calories and nutrients. Like the beverage companies' commitment, this too, was a voluntary agreement for the Let's Move! campaign. Some companies, like Campbell's, have already released products with new labeling; check out the SpaghettiOs next time you're in a supermarket. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaking to the GMA in March of 2010)

Mrs. Obama declared last year that coming to a voluntary agreement on improved labeling for foods is a "no brainer." She also said that "a Twinkie is not a cigarette," and does not need the kind of warning label that tobacco products now carry. A simple, easy-to-read label will do, Mrs. Obama said. But exactly what that kind of label looks like, and the information that is on it, is not so simple...

*Issa will investigate food
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) this week becomes the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Over the weekend, Issa pledged that he will be using his power of subpoena to examine all kinds of waste and fraud in the Obama administration. During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Issa vowed a particular focus on food safety. He's been saying the same things since it became clear he'd be Chair.

*Calorie and nutrition information on menus
Section 4205 of the Affordable Care Act requires chain restaurants with more than twenty outlets, as well as vending machines operators who own franchises, to display caloric and nutrition information for every food offering, with the exception of daily specials at restaurants. The federal rules supersede any already created by states or municipalities, and theoretically went into effect on March 23, 2010, when President Obama signed the legislation into law. However, FDA has not issued final guidelines for some of the requirements, and these will be released in 2011. Click here to read all the details.

*Top and fourth photos by EGK/ Obama Foodorama; second by Lawrence Jackson/White House; third by Pete Souza/White House