by Jenny Hopkinson, Helena Bottemiller Evich, Bill Tomson and Chase Purdy
The Obama administration is becoming increasingly involved in what Americans put on their dinner plates and in their cereal bowls, from requiring school children to be served fruit to eliminating trans fats in doughnuts. But the new Republican Congress is already laying the groundwork to push back in 2015.
As the opening bell sounds for the 114th Congress, don’t be surprised to see GOP lawmakers take on school nutrition. The $1.1 trillion omnibus this month included provisions to allow states more flexibility to exempt schools from the Department of Agriculture’s whole-grain standards if they can show hardship and to halt future sodium restrictions
But that was only the opening salvo in the long-running fight over new reforms championed by first lady Michelle Obama.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, has been leading the charge on school lunch, along with Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a key member of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee. But their cause is about to be picked up by the House Education and Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), and the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), as they begin work to reauthorize the law governing school nutrition programs.
Both Kline and Roberts have been openly critical of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a bipartisan law that included many reforms that are now sparking complaints among schools and Republicans who argue the rules are too prescriptive and costly.
While the committees have yet to release their plans, interest groups say the action could start as soon as March.
The new congressional landscape is good news for the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school cafeteria professionals and spent much of 2014 in a public battle with the White House. The group lobbied aggressively to scale back the new regulations, which limit sodium, fat and sugar as well as mandate all grain products are whole grain-rich and that kids take a serving of fruits or vegetables.
“We’re hopeful,” said SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner.
SNA’s ask to drop a mandate that kids take a half cup serving of fruits or vegetables, in particular, is expected to be a big fight, as the move is strongly opposed by nutrition advocates, the White House and the produce industry, which is seeing big gains in produce sales into the program.
SNA argues that the requirement has led to skyrocketing waste and costs, contributing to financial woes for many school nutrition programs. Battle lines will also be drawn on new nutrition standards on all food sold in schools, including vending machines and a la carte lines — standards that in some cases have led to lost revenue for schools — and debate will continue on whole grain and sodium requirements.
Pratt-Heavner said SNA expects to issue an update to its lobbying platform in mid-January and will host roughly 1,000 members on Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers in the first week of March.
The giant spending bill that recently passed Congress also showed that lawmakers have their eyes on the Dietary Guidelines, the federal government’s every-five-year list of suggestions to Americans on what they should eat. The next report is expected in the fall.
Lawmakers inserted language in the omnibus bill that instructs the secretary of Health and Human Services to steer the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee away from its current focus on food sustainability issues — an issue that was making the food industry nervous.
The new year is also going to be one in which the administration is forced to defend its efforts to better inform the public about what it is consuming by requiring the food industry and retailers to improve their labeling.
For starters, the Food and Drug Administration can expect to feel the heat on its sweeping final rule to require calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants, grocery stores and movie theaters nationwide, whether from hearings or legislation, or both. The grocery and convenience store industries are especially upset about being included in the rule, which was mandated by a provision buried in the Affordable Care Act.
FDA decided to go big with its final rule, also requiring calorie counts for alcoholic beverages, a move that many didn’t see coming.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers took aim at the FDA’s menu labeling rules earlier this month, saying the measures are “suffocating America’s economy.” The Washington state Republican is calling for the passage of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, HR 1249, a bill she introduced in March 2013 that would roll back some of the administration’s new rules.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is expected to push a companion Senate version next year as well.
“The Food and Drug Administration has acted recklessly, mandating regulations without considering the impact they will have on American employees, business owners, and our economy,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “Adhering to these burdensome requirements will be extremely costly — in both time and resources — for restaurants, grocery stores, delivery chains, and movie theaters across the country.”
McMorris Rodgers said the proposal is “one of the most expensive regulations ever.” The FDA estimates the rule could cost the industry $1.2 billion with 498,508 hours of paperwork.
Added sugars and GMOs
But that’s not the only labeling issue FDA could play defense on next year. On a related front, the agency also can expect continued pushback from the food industry on its Nutrition Facts Panel proposal, which would require manufacturers to separately list added sugars. Interest groups have been taking their concerns about what they see as a flagrant bureaucratic overreach to Capitol Hill for months, though it’s not yet clear how a Republican majority might address the issue.
Yet another issue that could be a wild card for the FDA later in the year is salt. The agency is working on a policy to further reduce sodium in the food supply, but many are in the dark about the project’s status. The issue, which the food industry would quickly attack, is assumed to be on the agency’s back burner for now.
And back on the labeling front, Congress can be expected to debate the need for requiring manufacturers to say when their foods contain genetically modified ingredients. Following Vermont’s passage of a GMO labeling requirement and several close votes on ballot initiatives, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) said he plans to reintroduce a food industry-supported bill early in 2015 that would prevent states from setting their own standards and guaranteeing the authority to label GMOs stays squarely with FDA. The agency has expressed little interest in making labeling mandatory.
A number of lawmakers, including several Democrats, rallied around Pompeo’s bill at a Dec. 10 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.
Similarly, all eyes will be on the FDA for its expected approval of genetically engineered salmon, which if given the green light would be the first GE animal allowed for consumption in the United States. The agency has been sitting on a petition to consider the AquaAdvantage salmon since at least 1996.