Peter Hutt, former general counsel of the Food and Drug Administration, has told an audience of food editors here that food companies are going to have to start labeling their products with every piece of important information including possible risks.
That way, Hutt said last week, people can decide for themselves if they want to accept the risks instead of expecting FDA to make the decisions and then being angry when they do. Hutt's idea of giving the public as much information as possible is one that FDA's Commissioner Dr. Donald Kennedy also finds appealing.
When it comes to food safety and nutrition, Hutt said, the public "speaks with a forked tongue." On the other "the American mood is, we don't want so much protection."
Hutt's interpretation of the agency's future role puts him somewhere between the food industry and consumer activists. The former thinks FDA regulates too much and is reluctant to put any more information on labels. The latter not only want the information, but believe the agency must take the responsibility for keeping hazardous substances out of the food supply.
"Food is obviously our life blood," Hutt said and "FDA regulates 25 to 30 cents of every dollar spent by every citizens." Which is why, he thinks "food will be in politics forever." The 42-year-old Hutt resigned from FDA three years ago to return to work at his old Washington law firm, Covington & Burling.
He cited the FDA's last three efforts at regulations, all of which have been overruled by Congress. They are: an attempt to set limits on formulations and potency levels of vitamin and mineral supplements; a proposal to regulate the bacteriological count in shellfish; and the most recent, a ban on saccharin, delayed for at least 18 months by congressional action last month.
The next one, Hutt predicted, will be laetrile. FDA says the substance is worthless and probably dangerous. But there is a strong movement, not by industry but by people, according to Hutt, to allow laetrile on the market and Congress has been exploring the possibility of legalizing its use.
Asked if some of this pressure on Congress to overturn FDA decisions doesn't come from industry (such as the full page ads taken out by the Calorie Control Council, a lobbying group for the diet soft drink and food industry, to convince the public that there was no legitimate reason to ban saccharin), Hutt agreed. But he said, "there is a depth of feeling among the public . . . an irrational mood" about these issues."They don't want government telling them what to do."
Hutt, who specializes in food and drug law, came under sharp criticism from several consumer advocates when he was appointed general counsel at FDA in 1971. At the time he promised to disqualify himself from partipating in any cases involving former clients. Now that he has returned to his old law firm he said that while he will give his clients advice on food and drug laws, he will not have direct contact with FDA for several years.
He suggested that if people want to decide for themselves what risks they are willing to take. FDA must "increasingly rely on providing relevant information about food products so the public can make better informed judgments.
It's the only thing the agency can do, Hutt said, because "we are demanding that FDA come up with answers when there are no answers.
"FDA's job is quite literally impossible of achieving," he said. They are asked to resolve "irresolvable scientific controversies" about cholesterol, salt and sugar. "The safety issue," Hutt said, "is even more complex."
He presented five basic problems facing FDA in attempting to make such judgments: The scientific data are never sufficient to allow really definitive answers; even when there is a great deal of data, there is enormous controversy over its meaning. There is a philosophical problem of how much risk is acceptable ("an individual ethical and moral judgments"). "There is pressure from virtually every direction to make decisions . . . and it doesn't make any differences which way FDA goes, there will be an equal amount of controversy."
There "are no magic solutions, no silver bullets," Hutt said.
He told the newspaper food editors that they have the responsibility for presenting all sides of these controversies. He said reporters should "stop relying on press releases" because the issues aren't that simple.
But Hutt thinks FDA is on the right road toward easing its dilemma by seeking more public participation and making its decisions out in the open. In addition, he said, mandatory nutrition labeling, full ingredient labeling, all regulatory actions on which FDA has embarked, are essential. Hutt "feels very strongly" about putting "every piece of relevant information on the label.
"The food industry is going to have to label the sugar content because it's the public's right to know what it is eating," in his opinion. They are going to have to label color additives by named instead of using the term "artificial color." Hutt thinks the worry about color additives "is misplaced. But if consumers want to know, in my judgment, they ought to be given that information."
Hutt believes nutrition labeling should be mandatory for all products. (Currently it is required only when a product makes a nutritional claim.) He said percentage of ingredient labeling is needed when the "value of the product depends on the amount of the characterizing ingredient," for example, the percentage of shrimp in a jar of shrimp in cocktail sauce.
He does not agree with the argument used by the food industry that "consumers will be overwhelmed" with all this information. "I think they can be educated," he said. Nor does he think much of the claim that there isn't room on the label for the information. "It seems to me that there is always room for one or two recipes.
"Hutt's belief in the public's right to know has been echoed by FDA Commissioner Kennedy. In an interview with The Washington Post before he took office last April, Kennedy said: "Public policy decisions should not be made exclusively by technicians and scientists." He said it is the agency's responsibility to provide "good information" through nutrition education. "In general," Kennedy said, "people exercise choices to their advantage when they have the most information."
With well-informed consumers, Hutt sees a way to keep products with possible risks on the market. "Instead of banning where there are no alternatives (like saccharin) a consumer will be told the relevant information so he and she can make a choice.
"When this occurs," Hutt said, "we will need more education of the food industry than of consumers. The food industry never thinks of its products as having risks, But we are going to have to start to put some of those risks on some of those products."