HOSTESS TWINKIES, Mars bars, Hershey's chocolate, Pringles, Kool Aid:
The Department of Agriculture has put its stamp of approval on these snacks and hundreds more, permitting their sale before, during and after school lunch.
At a congressional hearing last week, Labor and Education subcommittee chairman Carl Perkins asked Assistant Agriculture Secretary Carol Foreman how such foods could be approved if the department's objective is to "preserve the nutritional integrity" of what children are served in school. "How," Perkins asked, "can you justify the inclusion of certain candies?"
How indeed when USDA has fought to remove similarly questionable (and some would say more nutritious) foods from the school breakfast program, such as cupcakes and donuts fortified with vitamins and minerals.
The irony of the situation has not been lost on nutritionists who think the department's latest proposal to restrict the sale of foods sold in vending machines on school grounds is, as Michael Jacobson says, "a cruel joke against children."
In its second attempt to regulate foods sold in competition with federally funded school lunches, USDA proposes to ban the sale before and during the lunch period of those foods which do not contribute a minimum of 5 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for just one of eight nutrients. The only categories of food excluded are sodas, water ices, gum and a few candies such as marshmallows, corn candy, sour balls, fondants and caramel corn. But even those products could find their way back into the vending machines if manufacturers decide to fortify them with 5 percent of one of the following: protein, vitamins A and C, riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, iron or calcium. Then they could be sold along with Twinkies and Baby Ruths.
There are sodas on the market now that would qualify. One called Nutripop Cola is simply sweetened, colored, carbonated water that has been fortified with nine vitamins and minerals. Kool Aid - uncarbonated, sweetened, colored water - is fortified with Vitamin C, so it, too, qualifies as an appropriate drink.
There is speculation that USDA's unsuccessful experience with its first, slightly more restrictive proposal to limit the sale of junk foods and the department's defeat last year in its attempt to regulate the fortified breakfast sweets has made it gun shy. Ann Casper, a nutritionist with the Children's Foundation, said: "If USDA did a lot to restrict what the companies sold, they'd quickly have a lawsuit by the companies. The question is who does USDA want to have sue them? The companies or the public? It would be harder for them if the companies sued."
The companies threatened to do so when the original proposal was announced last year. Under it soda, frozen desserts, chewing gum and all candies would have been banned. At last week's hearing Chairman Perkins wanted to know "why the list had been watered down and what Carol Foreman thoguht of it personally?"
Foreman said USDA "felt it was required to write regulations consistent with the laws set by Congress." Personally she said, "I find myself concerned about the incidence of dental caries [cavities] but legislative history doesn't ask me to use my personal judgment. If Congress wants to list more foods, we'd be happy to carry out Congress' intent."
In an earlier interview Foreman had said, "the data and authority are not there," for a more comprehensive ban. "Congress didn't give us quite as much leeway as we thought we had."
Industry was equally successful in its lobbying efforts against a ban on fortified donuts in the school breakfast program last year. The department had said such foods are inappropriate for school breakfasts and sought their withdrawal in order to "promote the development of good food habits in the furtherance of nutrition education through a well-balanced diet of conventional foods." The action recognized the argument that schools should not be giving their stamp of approval to such products since children are unable to distinguish between the fortified cupcakes, cookies and donuts and those that they can purchase outside which are not fortified. In addition, USDA said foods which contain so much fat and sugar are inappropriate for breakfast.
But Congress told USDA that it could not ban the products until some time after 1979, if at all.
It was the first time the Carter administration $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE had attempted to keep these fortified sweets out of the school breakfast program, but this was USDA's second unsuccessful attempt. Both times an overwhelming majority of public comments favored such a ban. And 80 percent of the 4,000 public comments on the first junk-food proposal favored some sort of ban. Of those, 40 percent wanted stricter regulations. Instead, USDA has backed off from what was less than a perfect regulation to begin with.
One USDA official feels that the current proposal "is an unassaiable legal document that does not go as far as I would like it to go." The official felt it would stand up against any industry challenge. The official, who did not want to be named, said if the department had been able to determine what foods could be used on the basis of nutrient density, it would have done so. But the official said, "the data was lousy."
Nutrient density measures the nutrient content in relationship to calorie level. In other words, how many calories can an individual afford to consume in order to get the required amount of certain nutrients? No one has yet determined when a food has too many calories in relationship to its nutritional value.
The soft-drink industry doesn't like the document at all. Said Jay Smith, public relations director of the National Soft Drink Association: "This rule, if allowed to go into effect, places unfair emphasis on individual foods and beverages while ignoring the role these foods play in an otherwise balanced diet."
Smith refused to say whether or not the industry would sue if USDA put the proposed rule into effect.
Two nutritionists who testified at the hearing last week think USDA is attacking the problem the wrong way. "The standard," said Peg McConnell of the National School Food Action Committee, a colaition of consumer groups and nutrition organizations, "should be based on foods, not on nutrients." Ann Casper echoed her sentiments. The proposed regulation is "totally absurd. People don't eat nutrients, they eat food."
McConnell recommended that foods sold in competition with the school lunch program be restricted to the same kinds of food permitted in the Type A school lunch. Those foods, taken from what USDA calls the Basic Four Food Groups, are determined on the basis of a mix which offers a certain percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowances for a variety of essential nutrients. McConnell's recommendations go one step further: they call for "specified limits on their fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium content," which the Type A lunch does not do.
"By basing a standard on the consumption of foods rather than nutrients," McConnell said, "the Type A standard ensures sound nutrition edication in addition to adequate nutrient intake."
Said Foreman, "We would have loved to have used the Type A foods because it would be easily administered, but we did not think it was consistent with the legislative history." Some states are already using Type A foods as a basis for what may be sold in competition with the lunch. At least 16 states have tighter regulations governing the sale of competitive foods than USDA is proposing; some of them are quite strict. West Virginia has banned the sale of candy, soft drinks, gum and flavored ice bars in schools at any time. Massachusetts does not permit the sale of candy or carbonated beverages in any school at any time. Milwaukee, Wis., prohibits the sale of any foods in competition with the school lunch program between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The District of Columbia prohibits the sale of "junk foods," but these regulations look better onpaper than in practice. Some District schools are reported to have vending machines that sell soft drinks to students. Many states prohibit the sale of any non-nutritious foods a half-hour prior to and during the school lunch period. Even this regulation goes further than what USDA has proposed.
More than once Foreman has appeared to be asking local jurisdictions to go further than USDA feels it can go. "State and local authorites are encouraged to adopt or continue more comprehensive rules," she said in her testimony. She said she was "happy" that several states already go "far beyond our position."
Interested parties have until Sept. 6 to comment on the proposed regulations, which were published in the Federal Register July 6. Comments should be sent to Margaret Glavin, Food and Nutrition Service, Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 20250.