By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
President Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, faced the Senate in his nomination hearing on Wednesday, during which he implied that delayed implementation of the science-based nutrition facts label revision would be possible if he is confirmed.
Yes, you read that right. The future chief of an agency dedicated to protecting public health is already hinting at his willingness to do industry’s bidding to push back enforcement of a rule based in solid science that would help us make informed food purchasing decisions to improve our health. But his alignment on industry talking points is not completely shocking. Mr. Gottlieb has a long list of ties to industry, including an extensive financial and professional relationship with several pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell opioids.
During the hearing, Senator Pat Roberts told Gottlieb that the deadline of summer 2018 was not enough time for industry to make the required label changes, including the new added sugar line, especially considering that companies will have to include biotechnology disclosures on labels soon as well. To the question of whether he would “work to ensure proper guidance is available and consider postponing the deadline for the Nutrition Facts Panel to help reduce regulatory burdens?” Gottlieb didn’t explicitly say he would postpone the deadline but might as well have:
“This is something that I do care about and I look forward to working on if I am confirmed,” Gottlieb said. He continued to explain that he is, “philosophically in favor of trying to make sure we do these things efficiently, not only because it imposes undue costs on manufacturers to constantly be updating their labels, but we also have to keep in mind it creates confusion for consumers if the labels are constantly changing…you want to try to consolidate the label changes when you are making [them] as a matter of public health so that the information is conveyed accurately and efficiently to the consumers.”
The delay tactic is often used by industry as a fallback plan, once they’ve failed altogether to stop a science-based policy that might impact their bottom line. This is old hat for the food industry. Back in December, I wrote about how the Food & Beverage Issue Alliance (a group made up of the biggest food and beverage trade associations, like the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association) had written a letter to the acting HHS secretary and USDA secretaries asking to delay the implementation of the nutrition facts rule to coordinate with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biotechnology disclosure rule. Some of the same players doubled-down on a similar letter in March, asking HHS Secretary Tom Price to delay the rule until May 2021 for the same reason. Scott Gottlieb’s remarks at his hearing closely resemble the sentiments contained in both of those letters.
Sound familiar? Time and time again we’ve seen science-based proposed rules never make it to the final stages, or those that are finalized but implementation is soon delayed. Just last week, EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, issued a proposed rule that would delay implementation of the Risk Management Plan (RMP) amendments 20 months, until February 19, 2019. This move came after several petitions from the American Chemistry Council and a handful of other chemical manufacturing corporations, oil and gas companies, and trade organizations asked the agency to reconsider the rule.
And remember the silica rule? Although the science had been clear for over forty years, it took the Department of Labor longer than necessary to issue a final rule late last year which tightened the standard, thanks to opposition from the American Chemistry Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Just yesterday, the department announced that the rule’s enforcement would be delayed because the construction industry needs more time to educate its employees about the standard.
Industry’s reaction to rules that protect our public health makes it seem like government is blindsiding them. But it’s not like any of these rules were dropped without warning or without cause. These safeguards take years to gather information for and write, during which industry is given ample opportunity to be involved in the process. FDA first began its work to revise the nutrition facts label in 2004, and the proposed rule which included the added sugar line was issued in 2014. Not exactly rapid response. The fact is that science-based policies threaten business as usual, and therefore industry will use all resources at its disposal to stop or slow progress.
Industry’s excuses are wearing thin
Once again, with clear science on the public health consequences associated with excessive added sugar consumption, we have been waiting long enough for full added sugar disclosure on labels. While we wait, we’re missing out. The estimated benefit to consumers of the revisions to the nutrition facts label consumers would be $78 billion over 20 years, not to mention the less quantifiable benefits that come with the right to know how much added sugar is in the foods we buy and eat.
The majority of companies already have until 2019 to make the new changes to their labels and larger food companies like Mars, Inc. have said they could meet the July 2018 deadline just fine.
It’s clear that industry is turning this science-based decision into a political one, at the expense of Americans who will remain in the dark about how much added sugar is in their food for even longer. As National Public Health Week draws to a close, I can’t help but think about the urgent need for progress now, not in four years, if we’re to improve the health of this country, let alone become the healthiest nation by 2030. If Mr. Gottlieb secures the FDA secretary position, he must remember that he is beholden to our public health, not the pharmaceutical or food industry’s bottom line.