Food politics in action: the White House vs. the FDA
Today’s New York Times has a long investigative piece on White House interference with FDA decision-making.
The FDA is supposed to make regulatory decisions on the basis of science. When President Obama came into office, he pledged to make decisions based on science and facts rather than ideology:
The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry…It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.
The Times article documents instances in which the administration failed to keep that pledge. Most of the instances concerned FDA-regulated drugs and devices, but one involves calorie labeling on restaurant menus.
Recall that when President Obama signed the health care reform act in 2010, he signed menu labeling into law. This required chain restaurants and vending machines to post calorie labels.
The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — included rules for movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines.
But when the FDA released its proposed regulations a year ago, these venues were exempted.
As I said at the time, “Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.”
According to the Times’ account, a White House health adviser insisted on these exemptions out of fear that Fox News might view labels on movie popcorn
as an especially silly example of the government intrusions that conservatives often mocked as the nanny state… This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state.
That’s bad enough but I noticed other key omissions in the FDA’s proposed rules. For one thing, they allow impossibly large ranges such as the 200-to-800 calories that Chipotle posts, for example.
For another, they say nothing about alcoholic beverages. As I explain in Why Calories Count, alcohol calories count and alcohol is almost as calorie as fat (7 per gram). The FDA is ducking this ostensibly because it does not have jurisdiction over alcohol (the Treasury Department does).
The FDA needs to take a good hard look at these issues.
It has not yet propose final rules. Maybe the Times’ article will give the FDA some breathing room and allow it to do the right thing this time.
And the FDA needs to get the rules out fast. If the Supreme Court strikes down health care reform, will that mean the end of menu labeling as well?