WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2016 - Despite Donald Trump’s repeated promises to roll back regulations, he may have trouble doing more than nibbling away at the Obama administration’s accomplishments in nutrition policy.
The school nutrition standards that the Agriculture Department implemented under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was first lady Michelle Obama’s signal victory on nutrition policy, will be difficult for Trump or the Republican Congress to change, especially if Democrats block passage of reauthorizing legislation.
New rules for food labeling, including the GMO disclosure legislation, also are likely to have a lasting impact on U.S. eating habits, say supporters of the Obama administration’s efforts. Moreover, some trends that Mrs. Obama and the administration have encouraged, such as eliminating trans fats and lowering sugar content in foods, are likely to live on simply because of changes in industry practices and consumer demand.
“The country is changing, and it’s changing fast,” said Sam Kass, who served as a White House nutrition policy adviser.
The White House kitchen garden would be difficult to get rid of, even if Trump wanted to. Mrs. Obama saw to that by securing a private funding source, the Burpee Foundation, and having a stone marker installed along with permanent fixtures including a table and seating area and archway designed by University of Virginia architecture students.
The biggest immediate question is the future of the child nutrition standards, which have required schools to increase servings of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told Agri-Pulse that he wants to pass a child nutrition reauthorization bill to replace the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act before the lame duck session ends next month. A bipartisan bill that his committee approved in January would reauthorize nutrition programs for five years and ease rules on sodium and on whole grains, but the legislation has never made it to the Senate floor. Some unnamed Democrats have held up its consideration recently.
The House version of the legislation, which never received floor action in that chamber and has no future in the Senate, would weaken the meal standards and also tighten the “community eligibility” provision (CEP) that allows all students to get free meals in schools located in certain high-poverty areas. In a bow to pressure from conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the House bill also would experiment with the idea of turning the program over to states in the form of block grants so they could operate school meal programs with their own rules. More than 18,000 schools are currently receiving meals through CEP, according to USDA.
Some backers of the nutrition standards would like to see a reauthorization bill pass while Obama is still in office and can influence the final product. During the next Congress, there may be increased pressure in the House to turn the program over to the states, and it could be vulnerable to cuts during the farm bill debate, said Roger Szemraj, a lobbyist for OFW Law.
But Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that supports the new standards, is concerned that passing a reauthorization bill would authorize the Trump administration to weaken the regulations. Leaving the status quo in place, and the existing standards untouched, may be the best option, she said.
“We would like to see a bill pass (in the lame duck), but only if it’s a good bill. If no child nutrition bill passed, then we’re left with the status quo, which is quite good,” Wootan said.
On the other side of the issue, the Heritage Foundation doesn’t even think the House bill goes far enough in rolling back the existing standards. “I don’t know what will happen next year, but I certainly hope that legislators will stop conceding child nutrition policy to those who want to expand welfare (beyond those in need, including to wealthy families) and who also believe federal bureaucrats and not local communities and parents should decide the details of school meals,” said Daren Bakst, who analyzes food and agriculture policy for the conservative think tank.
But passing a child nutrition bill in the next Congress won’t get any easier as much as conservative groups such as Heritage may want to see it happen: Roberts will be preoccupied with work on a new farm bill. And even if his committee does tackle child nutrition, Senate Democrats would likely try to block any major changes to the school standards. Pending a runoff in Louisiana, Republicans will likely control just 52 seats in the Senate, well short of the 60 needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
New food and restaurant labeling requirements also would not be easy for the Trump administration to undo without going through a lengthy rule-making process, although critics of a new requirement for listing added sugars on nutrition labels would like to see that changed.
The new GMO labeling law, which requires food companies to disclose biotech ingredients, also will provide a new source of information that could influence consumer behavior.
Most food companies plan to use a QR code to disclose information about a variety of food characteristics beyond GMO ingredients, including nutritional content and allergens. Other information, such as farming methods, could be added as consumers demand it. Advocacy groups could mine that data for information about foods and put it in forms more usable by consumers, said Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors, which consults with philanthropists and investors to increase the production of foods they consider more healthful and sustainable. Kessler was an informal adviser to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during negotiations over the new law.
One area where the Trump administration could have a fairly immediate impact is on the food industry’s use of trans fats, which are found in partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). Because of concerns about the effect of trans fats on cardiovascular health, the FDA in 2015 announced that it was removing their status as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), which means that food companies must end use of PHOs or seek approval for continued use.
A pending petition the Grocery Manufacturers has filed with the agency seeks approval for use of trans fat sources in products including breakfast cereals, soups, frozen pizza, cookies and nutrition bars. If FDA doesn’t act on the petition before Obama leaves office, it will be waiting for Trump’s new FDA commissioner to consider.
The new commissioner also could easily scrap the agency’s effort to reduce sodium in foods, say advocates on both sides of the issue. The sodium guidelines, proposed by FDA earlier this year, “are in trouble,” Wootan conceded.
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