Food fight

by Bernard Shire
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Every year, it seems, when most people are getting ready to take a break from the rigors of work to celebrate the holidays, the government takes the opposite tack. Even in December, numerous meetings are scheduled by regulatory agencies. Meanwhile, in Congress, decisions are made and regulations and legislation are being handed down. Government agencies and the companies they regulate even get into fights. This year, to make things even more interesting, the US Dept. of Agriculture and Congress decided to wage a fight over food.

Because of the continuing controversy over obesity in the United States, especially among children, the Obama administration decided to try to make changes to the variety of foods that are part of the National School Lunch Program. In order to do this, USDA proposed new rules to cut French fries from the program; limit salt; boost whole grains; and put restrictions on what counts as vegetables in a school lunch diet. In particular, the administration wants USDA to set minimum standards about pizza as a vegetable – asking that a minimum amount of tomato paste be served for it to count as a vegetable.

But at the urging of some food manufacturers, including frozen-pizza makers, potato growers and the salt industry, as well as members of Congress, the lawmakers blocked the new standards with legislation stopping USDA from spending money to carry out these new rules.

The argument has taken on some interesting dimensions. Some members of Congress have argued this issue boils down to personal freedom – the government shouldn’t be telling kids what to eat. Others disagree, however, saying that children don’t have this absolute freedom, that their parents have something to say about such decisions and they can exert some control over such eating choices, either directly to their children, or via the school district providing the school lunches. School districts have also gotten involved, saying cost is a factor, and they make their decisions about what to serve for lunch, at least partially, based on cost.

The fight is part of a battle over new nutritional standards for the school lunch and school breakfast programs proposed earlier this year by USDA. These standards were slated to be the first major increase in nutritional requirements in 15 years – part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress last year, and signed into law by the president. The goal was to reduce childhood hunger and obesity. The new standards would add more fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fat-free and low-fat milk to meals the government subsidizes or pays for about 32 million children every day. Sodium, calories, trans fats and saturated fats would operate under stricter limits under the new rules.

Not surprisingly, for a long time, schools have accepted government recommendations as to what they can serve in their federally subsidized breakfasts or lunches that are offered free or at reduced cost to low-income children. So far, the produce industry has reacted more positively to the proposed rules than the meat industry. Actually, the proposed stricter USDA rules would not have eliminated pizza and French fries from the school lunch program anyway. But they would have reduced the number of times children could buy them each week.

Interestingly enough, while these new rule proposals are actually guidelines aimed at encouraging school districts to change school lunch program diets, at least to some degree, USDA actually operates rules that are much more than guidelines when it comes to identifying food products.

These “standards of identity” have been in place for quite a long time, and were originally established to protect the public from economic deception by preventing food manufacturers from naming a food product something it isn’t.

But in recent years, some of these standards have been eliminated because they were preventing food manufacturers from making broader styles of products consumers demand today. For example, USDA eliminated standards of identity for “pizza with meat” and “pizza with sausage,” and now requires the type of meat and other ingredients to be identified instead. What USDA was trying to do, in requiring a certain amount of tomato to be served on pizza for it to be considered a vegetable, harkens back to the traditional “standards of identity.”

The outcome of the food fight now underway will likely decide what makes a healthy meal in the USDA school lunch program – and who decides.

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