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Top 5 food policy gains in 2010 (and what’s lagging behind)

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on January 6, 2011 - 4:23am

four lokoBy Michele Simon,

This time of year, it’s customary to look back and capture the most important historical moments. And all things considered, 2010 was a pretty good year. So in that spirit, here are my top 5 gains in food policy. (They are in no particular order.)

1) FDA action to remove caffeine from alcoholic beverages

OK, I am putting this one first because I worked on it directly and am most proud of it. Why is it a big deal? Because alcoholic beverages are generally not regulated by FDA but rather by the Department of Treasury (don’t ask). Thanks to the work of my organization (Marin Institute), numerous state attorneys general, and champions inside FDA, that agency took action to get the companies making dangerous products such as Four Loko and Joose to remove the caffeine. This was a tremendous victory for youth safety.

2) New federal legislation to update food safety under FDA

So much has been written about this roller coaster ride that it should need no explanation. Why is it a big deal? Because food safety laws had not been updated in 70 years. Most importantly, the law gives FDA mandatory recall authority. Of course, it remains to be seen if and how the law will get properly funded in the new Congress.

3) Child Nutrition Reauthorization

The update of this law was also much publicized, in part thanks to the First Lady’s leadership on the issue. Why is it a big deal? Most important provisions include increasing the reimbursement rate for school meals (not much but better than nothing) and finally giving USDA authority to set nutrition standards on food sold outside of school meals (e.g., vending machines). But the latter will involve even more political fighting over the regulations to actually set the standards. (Too many journalists wrongly reported that the law “removed junk food from schools” but not until we see the regs.)

4) San Francisco law to set nutrition standards on Happy Meals

AKA the “Happy Meal ban;” but of course it was no such thing. Why is it a big deal? As I wrote for Civil Eats, organizers went up against some heavy duty lobbying to get the law passed and then needed enough votes to override the mayor’s veto. It simply says that restaurants using toys to lure children must follow reasonable nutrition guidelines. If Happy Meals don’t happen to fit those rules, that’s just too bad. Which leads me to…

5) Lawsuit v. McDonald’s over Happy Meals

While many people conflated the lawsuit filed by Center for Science in the Public Interest with the San Francisco ordinance, from a legal standpoint, they are actually quite different. The San Francisco ordinance sets nutrition standards, while the lawsuit is based on deceptive marketing to children. Why is it a big deal? If it survives, the case would set an important precedent: that based on state consumer protection laws, food companies cannot market directly to children. I will post more about this important issue soon.

What was missing and where we need action in 2011

In food safety, while the updated FDA law is crucial, what got ignored is the minor detail that meat is actually regulated by USDA, not FDA. So all the E.Coli outbreaks in hamburger meat, like the latest one, in organic beef? USDA’s problem, and that agency still has no mandatory recall authority. Lots of work to do.

Also, federal policy on marketing to children remains stuck in neutral. (Of course, it’s full steam ahead as far as food marketers are concerned.) While having Michelle Obama push for improved school meals was great, neither her Let’s Move program nor the Obama Administration more generally have shown any leadership on curbing junk food marketing to kids. No wonder the Center for Science in the Public Interest resorted to litigation to get McDonald’s to stop its exploitative marketing practices. Sometime, litigation is the only remaining legal option. Let’s hope it works.

Finally, get ready for the lobbying to start soon on the 2012 update of the farm bill. Some are saying not to expect too much progress this time around. (Sounds familiar.) If that’s true, the wrong foods will remain cheaply available while healthy foods remain scarce and unaffordable to most, while America’s health continues to suffer.

So while we can be proud of the positive gains made in 2010, much more work remains to be done in 2011 and beyond. Let’s get busy!

Bio: Michele Simon is a public health lawyer and author of the book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. You can visit her website and follower her on Twitter at: @Appetite4Profit

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