By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
The FDA’s revisions to the nutrition facts label, which we celebrated in May, could now be under siege on a few different fronts.
First, the food industry is considering adding a rider to the continuing resolution appropriations bill that Congress is working on right now. This is not a new tactic. You might remember that back in April, lawmakers snuck a rider into the House appropriations bill that would have discouraged the FDA from including an added sugars line in an update to the Nutrition Facts Label.
Now, the food industry is proposing two different riders: one that would delay the FDA’s ability to enforce the rule for years, until final guidance on dietary fiber and added sugars is completed, and another that would tie FDA’s enforcement of the new rule to the implementation of USDA’s genetically engineered food disclosure rules, which haven’t yet been written. 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) pleaded with the USDA and HHS to link the two rules to reduce the “unduly burdensome” nature of the changes in an October letter.
This pushback from industry to delay the rule is yet another example of its efforts to thwart science-based rules to keep the status quo, in this case making sure that consumers are kept in the dark about added sugar content for as long as possible.
2. Roll back
Another threat to the Nutrition Facts Label revisions is the irksome Gingrich-era bill, the Congressional Review Act. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) allows Congress to render regulations passed within 60 days of the end of the House or Senate sessions null. According to the Congressional Research Service, this could apply to regulations finalized any time after mid-May of this year. That cutoff date depends on when Congress adjourns this year.
Unfortunately, since the FDA published its nutrition facts labeling revision rule on May 27, 2016, it could be on the chopping block. Invoking the CRA brings with it the doubly awful lever of preventing agencies from issuing a “substantially similar” rule without the express authorization of Congress. This means that if this rule is reversed, the FDA would not be able to update or revise the nutrition facts label for the foreseeable future.
There is little precedent on the successful use of this Act, but the one time a CRA bill was passed by G.W. Bush’s Congress in 2001, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s workplace ergonomics standards were rolled back, and the agency has not issued a similar rule since. For context, CRA was invoked several times during the Obama administration, but these were quickly vetoed by the president.
The final threat is that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Tom Price, a physician and Georgia congressman whose voting record reveals his lack of interest in improving the quality of school meals and transparency in the food system.
While Price hasn’t been extremely vocal on food issues during his tenure in Congress, he voted against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, which when passed, helped to improve the nutrition of school meals across on the country, including lowering added sugar amounts. A vote against HHFKA is concerning, considering that HHS will be working with the USDA to issue the next version of the Dietary Guidelines in 2020.
Price was also a co-sponsor of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which exempted certain retailers from menu-labeling rules. And, while the top industries contributing to Price’s campaigns have been health professional organizations and the pharmaceutical industry, he has received roughly $50,000 from Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association since he took office in 2004. Based on his record and his funding sources (and those of other members of Trump’s corporate cabinet), limiting added sugar consumption will probably not be a priority of Price’s HHS.
Why we can’t let this happen
Since 2014, UCS, and our supporters and allies, fought hard to ensure that the FDA’s revisions to the Nutrition Facts Label would be evidence-based and strong enough to inform consumers and ultimately protect public health. As sugar consumption and obesity rates continue to rise, the implementation of the new label is as important as ever. Without the label changes, it will be extremely difficult for Americans to follow the recommendations of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reduce intake of added sugar to less than 10 percent of daily calories, since there will be no way to know exactly how much added sugar is in a particular food!
In early November, I attended the annual meeting of American Public Health Association (APHA) where I presented findings from my Hooked for Life report and spoke with many public health professionals over the course of several days. There was not a single person who wasn’t supportive of improved transparency and regulations related to added sugar in food, especially children’s food. As we’ve documented in the past, public health professionals are nearly unanimous in their support for improved nutrition labeling, and the nutrition facts label has been shown to help individuals make informed decisions impacting their health at retailers.
Right now, you can ask your representatives to do two things: Pass a rider-free spending bill and vote “no” if a CRA bill is introduced that would kill the FDA’s rule revising nutrition facts labels. We must protect this hard-earned victory on a solidly science-based rule that will protect public health. And, if you haven’t already, sign this letter to HHS and USDA asking them to prioritize the impacts of added sugar on young children as they begin the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans process.