by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FDA

Jul 17 2018

Lab-grown meat: FDA v. USDA

The FDA held a public meeting last week on lab-grown “meat,” meaning, in FDA-speak, “foods produced using animal cell culture technology.”  The meeting agenda is here.

At issue are:

The FDA’s announcement of the meeting, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s statement staked FDA’s territory over these products.  Gottlieb said:

The FDA has a long history of ensuring food safety and applying our statutory framework while supporting rapidly evolving areas of technological innovation in food. The agency currently evaluates microbial, algal and fungal cells generated by large-scale culture and used as direct food ingredients. The agency administers safety assessment programs for a broad array of food ingredients, including foods derived from genetically engineered plants, and also manages safety issues associated with cell culture technology in therapeutic settings.

But if these foods are meat, then USDA is responsible for their regulation.  In a statement to Politico (behind paywall), a USDA spokesperson said:

According to federal law, meat and poultry inspections are the sole purview of USDA, so we expect any product marketed as ‘meat’ to be USDA’s responsibility. We look forward to working with FDA as we engage the public on this issue.”

Politico points out what’s at stake in the jurisdictional dispute.

There are at least 10 lab-grown meat companies across the globe that are furiously working to figure out how to get their products to market. Some of the startups are driven by a desire to reduce animal agriculture’s environmental footprint as developing countries increasingly drive demand for meat and dairy products. Major investors who’ve moved to get into the action include innovators like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Tyson Ventures, an investment arm of meat giant Tyson Foods.

The meat industry, as you might expect, does not want these foods to be called “meat.”  But the industry has not reached agreement on strategies (some meat companies have invested in lab-grown meat startups).

The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) in February asked federal government regulators to adopt a definition for meat that would exclude cell-cultured products (often called “clean meat“).  This week though, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) asked the same regulatory agency to rule the opposite.

The NCBA wrote  a letter to USDA stating its position:

NCBA is alarmed by the growing number of flagrantly deceptive food product labels proliferating the marketplace. Consumers have the right to expect that the information on food labels is truthful and not misleading, just as all food products should expect to compete on a fair, level playing field…NCBA firmly believes that the term beef should only be applicable to products derived from actual livestock raised by farmers and ranchers.

Global Meat News has a good summary of the industry’s concerns.

Four members of Congress chided the FDA for jumping into this:

Cell-based food technologies and products are an emerging science, and both agencies should be working collaboratively on a scientific approach towards a framework to regulate these products.

Good luck with that.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has a report on the FDA meeting.  I’m quoted:

Between the two agencies, I favor FDA…USDA’s primary role is to support and defend industrial agricultural production. The agency tolerates, but is unenthusiastic about organics. It will do the same for lab-based meat.

The FDA has opened questions about lab-grown meat for public comment.  File comments here.  The deadline is September 25.

Added comment

At a Politico Summit meeting today,

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said…that the agency is working closely with USDA on early efforts to establish a regulatory framework for lab-grown meat, or “cell-cultured foods,” the FDA’s preferred name for it.

We shall see.

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Jun 25 2018

Trump’s government reorganization plan: really?

The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government.  Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS.  Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:

  • Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
  • Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
  • Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:

  • Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA.  USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness.  Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
  • Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
  • The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
  • Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either.  Public health needs all the health it can get.

Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly.  USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.

Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals.  My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.

Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.

Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):

  • Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
  • Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
  • The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
  • A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
  • Reorganization is expensive and will take years.  The payoff is unclear.

As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:

  1. Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
  2. Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
  3. Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.

These proposals, alas, ignore step #2.  Good luck with that.

Jun 6 2018

The Romaine lettuce outbreak: source still unknown, victim count rising

The FDA did something quite unusual.  It issued an apparently frank description of where it is in investigating the Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak that has sickened 197 people, put 89 in the hospital, and killed five—so far.

It published a chart summarizing what the agency has learned about the various distribution channels along the way to the contaminated lettuce that made people sick.

As the FDA explains:

As can be seen in the diagram, in the current outbreak, and based on the information we have to date, there are still no obvious points of convergence along the supply chain…These pathways lead back to different farms, sometimes many farms, where possibly contaminated lettuce could have been harvested during the timeframe of interest.  The only point of commonality in our traceback efforts to date is that all of the farms are located in the Yuma growing region…What does this traceback diagram tell us?  It says that there isn’t a simple or obvious explanation for how this outbreak occurred within the supply chain…The contamination likely happened at, or close to, the Yuma growing area.  Our task now is to investigate what happened.

I used “apparently” with reference to the FDA’s frankness because food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who represents many of the victims of this outbreak,* points out that the FDA must know the names of the farms, distributors, and sellers of the contaminated lettuce, but refuses to say who they are.  Of his own work, Marler says:

We are in the unique position to know many, but not all, of the “points of sale” – restaurants and grocery stores – involved in the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. Having over 100 clients allows us to dig deep into their purchase history and consumption history.

We have already determined clusters of illnesses linked to Panera, Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobsters and Papa Murphy’s. We also have identified a processor – Freshway Foods.

If you knew the names of places selling contaminated lettuce, wouldn’t you have sense enough not to eat in them?

May 16 2018

Should organic eggs be labeled “healthy?” Their producers think so.

You have to have some sympathy for egg producers.  Egg consumption has been declining for years.

Egg producers blame the decline on cholesterol concerns; eggs are by far the largest dietary source of cholesterol.

Now Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is petitioning the FDA to forget about cholesterol and update its definition of “healthy” so the company can advertise its eggs as “healthy.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a speech last month that the FDA would be updating the definition.

I, of course, think “healthy” is a slippery slope best avoided, and that Congress never should have allowed health claims on foods in the first place.,

But too late for that.

I don’t envy the FDA’s challenge here.  The petition is based on the dietary guidelines, but what the guidelines say about dietary cholesterol, and therefore eggs, is extremely confusing.

As I explained in a previous post, the guidelines no longer recommend a cap on dietary cholesterol of 300 mg/day (the equivalent of 1.5 eggs), but do say that people should eat as little cholesterol as possible.

Good luck on this one.

May 10 2018

FDA delays Nutrition Facts revisions 1.5 years

On May 4, the FDA gave food companies a gift when it announced a 1.5-year extension of compliance dates for the Nutrition Facts label.

We are taking this action because, after careful consideration, we have determined that additional time would help ensure that all manufacturers covered by the final rules have guidance from FDA to address, for example, certain technical questions we received after publication of the final rules, and that they have sufficient time to complete and print updated Nutrition Facts labels for their products before they are expected to be in compliance with the final rules.

On its website, the FDA now says:

The FDA extended the compliance dates for the Nutrition Facts and Supplement Facts label final rule and the Serving Size final rule, from July 26, 2018 to January 1, 2020, for manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual food sales. Manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales would receive an extra year to comply – until January 1, 2021.

CSPI, understandably, is miffed:

The reality is that the labels are already on more than 29,000 products on grocery shelves, and more appear weekly.  So today’s announcement should be a call to action for companies to provide consumers the information they want now, rather than waiting for the legal deadline.

May 8 2018

Don’t eat romaine lettuce until this outbreak ends

I’ve been following the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak caused by eating romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona.

The CDC says the body count so far is:

  • Cases = 121
  • Hospitalizations = 52
  • Deaths = 1

Where the cases have been found:

Map of United States - People infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, by state of residence, as of May 1, 2018

 

What the “epi curve” looks like:

Epi curve of people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, by date of illness onset, as of May 1, 2018

What’s happening with the FDA’s investigation:

The FDA has identified one farm [Harrison Farms of Yuma, Arizona] as the source of the whole-head romaine lettuce that sickened several people at a correctional facility in Alaska. However, the agency has not determined where in the supply chain the contamination occurred…All of the lettuce in question from this farm was harvested during March 5-16 and is past its 21-day shelf life. Because the growing season in the Yuma region is at its end, the farm is not growing any lettuce at this time.

Most of the illnesses in this outbreak are not linked to romaine lettuce from this farm, and are associated with chopped romaine lettuce. The agency is investigating dozens of other fields as potential sources of the chopped romaine lettuce and will share information as it becomes available.

Some interesting aspects of this and other leafy green outbreaks:

In the meantime, the CDC’s advice to you:

  • Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce unless you are sure it was not grown anywhere near Yuma.
  • Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce if you cannot tell where it was grown.
  • Do not eat salad mixes unless you are sure it is free of romaine lettuce.
  • This applies to romaine lettuce in any form: heads, hearts, chopped, baby, organic, in salads or salad mixes.

But Consumer Reports says to avoid romaine lettuce entirely.

Seems like good advice until this one gets figured out.

May 7 2018

Today: Menu labeling goes national

Remember menu labeling?  In 2010, Congress said fast food places should reveal calories on their menus (New York City required this in 2008).

Food companies fought the measure and got delays, but the eight-year delay is up.  Menu labeling goes national today.

In a blog post, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb explained FDA thinking about such matters: the agency is pro-consumer and pro-market.

Information about how healthy our food is gives us the chance to make better choices about our diets. This same information also inspires competition among producers to formulate food in ways that make it more healthful…. food producers should be able to compete on the ability to develop foods that are healthier, and make reliable, science-based claims about these attributes to consumers.  So at FDA, we’re reforming our policies to make it more efficient to develop these claims. This clarity may encourage more manufacturers to invest in making foods healthier.

Uh oh.  More health claims (these, I insist, are about marketing, not health).  So that’s the trade-off; we get menu labeling at the price of more and inevitably misleading health claims.

Gottlieb defended the measure on Fox News.

If you have information on menu labels, the average consumer will reduce their caloric intake to 30-50 calories a day,” Gottlieb said during the interview. “That turns out to be about 3 to 5 pounds per year that you can lose just by having better information.

This is correct in theory, if you assume that one pound of fat contains about 3500 calories (this estimate comes from multiplying 454 grams per pound by 9 calories per gram for fat and rounding off).  Then it will take 3500 divided by 50 = 70 days to lose one pound.

In practice, such small calorie deficits are hardly measurable.  Most estimates suggest that losing weight requires a deficit of 300 to 500 calories a day (My co-author and I discuss all this in our book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics).

For an quick summary of the studies of menu labeling, JAMA has a useful review.

It’s great that Commissioner Gottlieb defended menu labeling on Fox News.  Looking at the calories on menu items is fun!

And it most definitely works for me.  If I see a muffin labeling at 700 calories, I share it with friends.

Apr 11 2018

Will the new food label ever appear?

Remember way back when the FDA proposed updating the Nutrition Facts label?  It’s hard to keep track of the delays but the label, first proposed in 2016, is scheduled to appear in supermarkets near you by January 1. 2020 for manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual food sales and to January 1, 2021 for those below that amount.

In March, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new guidances for perplexed food makers who still can’t figure out what they are supposed to say on labels.

The fiber guidance is particularly interesting.  FDA wants “dietary fiber” to have a proven health benefit, thereby excluding substances like chicory root, oat hulls, or other added plant components.

CSPI points out that the guidance is plenty clear enough, many food manufacturers are already using the new label, and the long delay is unnecessary.

I agree.  FDA: stop dilly-dallying on the food label.  The absurd delay makes it look like you are caving in to industry objectiosn.

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