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Trump’s FDA just took another swipe at Michelle Obama’s food legacy

A requirement for Nutrition Fact labels on packaged foods and other products has been indefinitely delayed, although some companies have already rolled the labels out. Here, customers shop Monday at an Aldi grocery store in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

After sustained lobbying from the packaged food and beverage industry, the Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday an indefinite delay in the launch of Nutrition Fact labels that were intended to help Americans eat more healthfully.

The labels, championed by former first lady Michelle Obama, were supposed to add a special line for “added sugars” and emphasize calorie content in large, bold text. They had been scheduled for rollout in July 2018, with a one-year extension for smaller manufacturers.

The delay is the latest reversal of the Obama administration’s nutrition reforms under Trump. On April 27, the FDA also delayed rules that would have required calorie counts on restaurant menus. A week later, the Department of Agriculture loosened the minimum requirements for the amount of whole grain in school lunches and delayed future sodium reductions.

Consumer groups are already slamming the Nutrition Facts delay as an attack on public health. The largest groups in the food industry, meanwhile, is celebrating what it calls a win for “common-sense” regulation.

But there may be another wrinkle here: As in the case of the menu-labeling delay, some companies have already adapted to the new rules — and they may be hurt if their competitors get more time to make the change.

“The ability of the Trump administration to repeat its mistakes is breathtaking,” said Jim O’Hara, the director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Just like with the menu-labeling delay, this administration is denying consumers critical information they need to make decisions, and it’s throwing the food industry into disarray.”

The debate over the Nutrition Facts deadline has exposed some interesting schisms in industry. While a number of large trade groups asked the FDA to delay implementation by three years — citing concerns about the cost of the labels, the lack of coordination between new label rules at FDA and USDA, and a lack of clarity around some requirements — others embraced the new panels, even printing them before they were required.

Among the early adopters are Nabisco/Mondelez, which has rolled the labels out on its Wheat Thins crackers; PepsiCo, which has put them on Lay’s chips, Fritos and Cheetos; and KIND, which makes granola bars.

Meanwhile, Mars Inc. — the maker of Uncle Ben’s rice, as well as dozens of candy brands — has vocally lobbied the FDA to stick to the original July 2018 deadline, citing consumers’ need for more health information.

Brad Figel, vice president of public affairs for Mars in North America, said the company had been devoting employees and resources to the new labels since they were finalized in 2016. Many other large food companies have also begun designing and printing the labels, anticipating a 2018 deadline.

Mars executives are concerned that the existence of two labels in the market will confuse consumers.

“We support this because we believing in giving consumers more transparency,” Figel said. “The fact that we’ll have the added sugar declaration and the percent daily value, but our competitors won’t? That just ends up confusing consumers.”

That scenario is already beginning to play out in restaurants and grocery stores, where companies who scrambled to get calorie counts on their menus suddenly found themselves, as of late April, competing with chains who had done no such thing.

California Pizza Kitchen has, for instance, already printed menus with nutritional information listed next to the price, according to Politico. At Pizza Hut, a competitor, calories are only labeled in a select number of stores.

Pizza chains are making a desperate push to avoid posting calories on menus

“It doesn’t help consumers,” said O’Hara, of CSPI. “And ultimately it doesn’t help industry, either.”

Notably, this issue is not unknown to the FDA; in a May 24 letter, Stephen Ostroff, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, wrote that he was “pleased to see that some products in the marketplace already bear the new label.”

But in its updated guidance to industry, the agency appeared to side with food industry groups that argued implementation by July 2018 was impossible.

“After careful consideration,” the agency said, “the FDA determined that additional time would provide manufacturers covered by the rule with necessary guidance from FDA, and would help them be able to complete and print updated nutrition facts panels.”

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