The FDA’s recent and surprisingly bold scrutiny of the Smart Choices food labeling program, coupled with wide public indignation over the program’s obviously inappropriate awards of healthy food status to processed foods without much actual merit, has left the industry-led nutrition rating effort in shreds. In a recent followup to his initial article in the New York Times, William Neumann reports that the Smart Choices program has been suspended only about two months after going live, and participants like PepsiCo have pulled out altogether. Kellogg’s, on the other hand, is “phasing out” its green checkmarked cereal boxes and announced that global marketing officer Celeste Clark is staying on in good standing after what has amounted to a PR fiasco over Froot Loops. Makes you think they were the ones with the highest investment in the program to begin with, or that perhaps they were the company least likely to admit how transparently flimsy the program’s nutrition criteria had become to the rest of the country.
It’s the first time in quite a while that the FDA has taken on a big household-name food industry target in public without a lot of hemming and hawing and backpedaling and dealmaking. It gives me hope that at least some of the federal government is shifting gears to start serving the public again.
The great surprise for me is how little real effort it took to shut down the food industry’s program. Three or four years ago it might well have prevailed, and the processed food industry might have been able to keep inserting its priorities into the debates over nutrition without any effective logical check. But at a time when the nation’s gotten sick of being lied to so brazenly for so long about so many things–many of them more serious–corporate food tampering and misrepresentation of food quality are becoming hair-trigger topics. Not least because food is the easiest for ordinary people to judge and to protest safely in the streets.
We can’t organize effectively enough to protect ourselves against the invasive, petty and obscene wastefulness of the Patriot Act as it has actually been applied. We can’t organize effectively enough to demand and get a proper, timely accounting of Guantanamo and the government’s use of torture there and abroad.
But we can talk food and nutrition and sustainability and corporate manipulation until the cows come home.
How else to explain the cult status of Michael Pollan? The rise of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc.? The fights over school cafeteria vending machines and chain restaurant nutritional stats? The Smart Choices checkmark for Froot Loops, which people buy specifically for the artificial colors and know perfectly well is not really food, touched the match to a very big pile of sawdust.
And now the FDA is also on its way to strengthened oversight powers from Congress, including mandatory food recalls, not just recommendations for recall, to go after contamination of the food supply, and with any luck some extra funding to cover the actual field investigations needed.
It’s long overdue, but somehow it seems to me the FDA is being tasked with something the USDA should have been doing all these years and hasn’t. The USDA has more tools and resources at its disposal for doing food safety checks at the agricultural and manufacturing levels but because part of its mission is to boost agriculture, it has often dismissed these checks as unnecessary and even obstructed them, as in the case of routine meat testing for BSE and other infections.
The FDA is still supposed to protect the nation against food and nutritional claims fraud, though some of its targets appear to be of diminishing significance in comparison with preventing widespread salmonella and E. coli in the food supply. Smart Choices is obviously a big and publicly important target, but on the other hand, it seems to have been exposed and skewered satisfactorily already by public reporting of the Froot Loops fiasco. The FDA can ride the crest and put the final, perhaps critical, touch on it, but the agency’s gotten a huge boost this time around from public opinion.
Maybe that’s saved the FDA and the public some time and taxpayer dollars that won’t have to be spent going to court over it. Maybe it’s given them the nerve to work on the public’s behalf more daringly, knowing that the public actually does give a damn about its own well-being? Maybe things are really going to be different enough that they’ll go after the big offenders even when the public isn’t way ahead of them? We can only hope.
But frankly, I still want to see the USDA fulfill its responsibilities to protect the public and the food supply, and not abandon or subvert them in service to big agriculture and processed food firms. The FDA shouldn’t have to pick up after them.
Filed under: Food Politics, nutrition | Tagged: Fast Food Nation, FDA, Food Inc., food labeling, food safety, Kellogg's, Michael Pollan, nutrition labeling, PepsiCo, processed food, processed food industry, Smart Choices |